Majoritarian Sinhala narrative emerges strong in Sri Lankan election

Published : August 07, 2020 21:57 IST

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa greets supporters following his victory in the general election, at his residence in Tangalle in Hambantota district, some 180 km from Colombo. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Rarely does a single election settle for all times, in clear terms, the debate on the future of a country. The Sri Lankan parliamentary elections, which gave a two-thirds majority for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), vanquished the United National Party (UNP) and made irrelevant the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is one such election. The SLPP won the two-thirds majority it wanted to amend the constitution, the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe lost, and the TNA was forced to share space in the northern province with new contenders, including former Chief Minister Wigneswaran, and Minister Douglas Devananda, long considered an outcaste in Vellalar-dominated Jaffna.

The Sinhala majoritarian narrative has emerged strong and clear with no pretence of accommodation of the minorities, and this signals a going back on the promise of a political solution to the Tamils of the north and the burial of a probe of war crimes against members of the Sri Lankan military ahead of its victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009. In return for the promise of safety and security made by the SLPP, the Sri Lankan voter settled for the rule of a family, the Rajapaksas, and a definitive change in foreign policy with China at the centre. Now, a Rajapaksa will be Prime Minister (Mahinda) while another is already President (Gotabaya). The architect of the long-drawn-out campaign, Basil Rajapaksa, too, will have to be accommodated in a senior position. Mahinda’s son Namal is also a contender for a Cabinet berth.

For the first time, two breakaway factions from the major political formations will be the ruling and the main opposition parties. The SLPP led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which split from the Grand Old Party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), is the ruling party. The Samagi Jana Balavegaya, which was formed by an exasperated former Minister, Sajith Premadasa, is a splinter group of the UNP. In effect, they are actually the SLFP and the UNP with different names because of the mass exodus of supporters from both these parties to the new formations.

"Heartfelt gratitude to all Sri Lankans for placing their trust in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, myself and the Podujana Party and voting for the ‘Saubhagye Dakkama’ [a period of health and wealth ahead] election manifesto in overwhelming numbers. We will ensure Sri Lanka will not stand disappointed during our tenure," tweeted Mahinda Rajapaksa after the results were announced.

True to its intention of sidelining the Tamils, the SLPP handed over to the election commission 17 names to be added to its national list MPs – there was just one Tamil on the list, Suren Ragavan, a former governor of the Northern Province, widely seen by the Tamil community as a collaborator with the Sinhalese forces. Three Muslims were included in the list (Ali Sabry, Marjan Faleel and Mohomed Muzammil). Of this, Faleel was named in a police complaint made by former President Chandrika Kumaratunge after her vehicle was attacked in December 2014 in Beruwala. All the rest are Sinhalas, led by former Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris, former Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Kabraal, and SLPP secretary Sagara Kariyawasam.

The Indian Tamil community, which is a force to reckon with in the Hill country, managed only nine seats across its three main factions. "All nine MPs have to work together. We have to draw up a unified strategy so that we do not cede ground at least in the next election," said a supporter.

Senthil Thondaman, of the Ceylon Workers Congress suffered a shock defeat in Badulla. Despite him being a close ally of Mahinda, his supporters are disappointed that he was not included in the list. But SLPP insiders say that this was because of the party’s principled stand that those who lose an election should not come in through the backdoor. The TNA slid to its worst defeat since the war ended in 2009, losing nine seats. Though its main leaders, R. Sampanthan and A. Sumanthiran won, Maavai Senadirajah, another senior leader, lost. The results from eastern Sri Lanka — Batticaloa and Amparai — are a cause for concern for the party since none of the sitting TNA MPs won.

"Nationalism at its best," said a senior official, close to the Rajapaksas. "It is a shame that some of the competent candidates in the opposition lost, but that is the price you will pay when the entire government is perceived as being run by outsiders and NGOs," he added.