The LTTE's silent vote

Print edition : December 16, 2005

WITHOUT firing a single shot the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) made its impact on Sri Lanka's fifth presidential election on November 17 and showed it could determine the course of the country's politics.

The presidential election is devised to ensure that all ethnic, linguistic and religious groupings have a say in the election of the constitutionally powerful head of state and government. In order to win the presidency, a candidate must get one vote more than 50 per cent of the valid votes cast. This helps ensure that a mere numbers game between the majority Sinhalese and the minorities does not ensure a candidate's victory. Keeping this provision in mind, successive presidential candidates went the extra mile to woo the minority vote.

The most crucial feature of this election was the abandonment of the position that political power-sharing through federalism is the correct path to resolving the ethnic crisis. Ironically, it was Mahinda Rajapakse, the candidate of the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) who reversed the line adopted by his predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga, more than a decade ago. His poll agreements with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) - which contained the promise to preserve the unitary state - effectively polarised the electorate into unitarists and federalists.

With federalists opting for the United National Party (UNP) candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, it was widely expected that the LTTE would back him. Herein came the first surprise. The LTTE's decision not to back Wickremesinghe was on the cards. Yet, if it was obvious that Wickremesinghe would not be able to win without the vote of the northeastern Tamils, why did the LTTE not play ball?

The answers are not far to seek. The Tigers would rather prefer a government in Colombo that can be portrayed to the international community as one that is "majoritarian".

This is only one element of the LTTE's thinking. The other factors are: possible apprehensions about Wickremesinghe as President. It is important to recall that the perceived bonhomie between the Wickremesinghe administration and the LTTE fell through in 2003. After the Tigers unilaterally pulled out of the peace talks, they blamed, among other things, the "excessive internationalisation" of the peace process under the Wickremesinghe administration. His re-election, hence, would have meant further internationalisation of the issue, particularly on a trajectory that could cause discomfort to the rebels.

At another level, in terms of bargaining, the LTTE had reached the limits of what it could gain from a Wickremesinghe administration when it pulled out of the talks. Moreover, Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister would be more amenable to the rebels' game plan than Wickremesinghe the President with vast executive powers.

At another level, Rajapakse's victory can be attributed to a non-mandate exercised by the LTTE by not endorsing Wickremesinghe's candidature and by calling for a "boycott" through its front organisations, which resulted in Tamil voters not turning up at the polling stations. There is an important subtext to the LTTE's subtle diktat.

The poll boycott, read with the overwhelming support Wickremesinghe got from the Tamil pockets that set out to vote, indicate a dichotomy in the LTTE's political line and the quest of the civilian for conflict resolution.

Most importantly, this underlines the LTTE's unpreparedness to endorse Wickremesinghe's federalist paradigm, and reiterates "separation" as the solution to the separatist crisis.

The LTTE's next political shot at the Sri Lankan state is likely to come in the form of V. Prabakaran's annual "Heroes Day" speech, scheduled for November 27.

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