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Winning the confidence of the Tamil electorate December 23, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , trackback

Jehan Perera

Who the Tamil people will vote for has become an important question at the forthcoming Presidential elections.  The departure of former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka, and his joining the opposition, has deprived the government leadership of its monopoly regarding credit for the war victory over the LTTE.  This has meant that President Mahinda Rajapaksa can no longer appeal to the majority Sinhalese electorate for their vote of gratitude to himself alone.

The entry of General Fonseka into the ranks of the opposition has also rejuvenated it, particularly the UNP, which was unable to face up to the President’s war victories and appeal to the ethos of the Sinhalese electorate.  Many traditional UNP voters from the Sinhalese ethnic majority began to vote either for the President’s party or for other Sinhalese nationalist parties.  With General Fonseka becoming the common opposition candidate there is a strong likelihood of these renegade UNP voters returning to the fold.

In these circumstances, the ethnic majority vote is likely to divide on traditional party lines.  With the vote banks being roughly of similar size, this suggests that the Sinhalese vote will be more or less evenly split.  The advantage that accrues to President Rajapaksa on account of being the incumbent president will be offset by the JVP vote that will go to General Fonseka as the common opposition candidate.  Unlike at past elections, President Rajapaksa can no longer be confident of obtaining a decisive majority of Sinhalese votes that would enable him to ignore the ethnic minority vote.�

The ethnic minority vote becomes important in the context of a split in the Sinhalese vote.  The ethnic minorities account for about 25 percent of the electorate and their vote can be decisive in determining which candidate will prevail at the Presidential elections. This is what happened at the 2005 elections when the LTTE’s enforced boycott of Tamil voters in the north and east, which kept out at least half a million voters, helped to give President Rajapaksa a narrow victory by 180,000 votes.

Both presidential candidates have been bidding for the ethnic minority vote.   As the largest ethnic minority, the Tamil vote is particularly important and its direction is unsure.  There is doubt whether the Tamil people will wish to vote at all.  Unless these people are encouraged to register to vote, many of them may not bother to do so, as it is an effort that they may deem is not worth the benefit to them.  On the other hand, as head of the government, President Rajapaksa is clearly at an advantage when it comes to delivering benefits to them.�

In the past several weeks, the government has been acting in a constructive manner to address the problems of the war affected Tamil people.  The most welcome of these actions was the decision to release all IDPs from the welfare centres to which they had been confined, and to give them the option of either staying within the welfare centres or going elsewhere.  The most recent concession by the government has been to remove all restrictions on free movement on the A9 highway that connects the northern capital of Jaffna to the rest of the country.

While these concessions are certain to be welcomed by Tamil voters, they are likely to see them as merely a regaining of lost rights.  The government may have to do more than restore rights that the Tamil people feel were unfairly taken away from them in the first place. In this context the visit to India by a high powered government delegation headed by the Presidents younger brother Basil Rajapaksa and the pledge of implementing a progressive political solution to the ethnic conflict may be important in influencing the vote of the Tamil electorate.�

However, the major problem that the government will face is to convince the Tamil people that it is sincere and will keep to its promises.  The government has been making the promise of coming up with a political solution for the past three or more years, but without delivering on it.  It is not only with regard to the ethnic conflict that the President has failed to keep his promises.  The disappointing track record of the President in keeping to his promises in general suggests that further promises will not suffice, only concrete actions will.

Indeed, if the President so desires, there are political reforms that could assuage Tamil sentiment that he can put into effect without too much delay.  For the past two years, one of the members of his government, Professor Tissa Vitarana has been chairing the All Party Representatives Committee on a political solution to the ethnic conflict, which has generated report after report as to what can be done in terms of political reforms that would address the ethnic conflict.  The President only needs to request Minister Vitarana to prepare such legislation and have it passed into law in Parliament as a first step.

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