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The question of the Tamil vote

Tamil politics took centre stage again last week too though it was up-country Tamil politics this time, instead of northern Tamil politics. What really made waves was the defection of R.Yogarajan, the national organizer of the Ceylon Workers Congress and M.Sachitananthan, the deputy minister of education and CWC member of parliament for the Badulla district, to Fonseka’s side. This sent shock waves through the government. Before they recovered from this blow, P.Chandrasekeran, the leader of the Up-country People’s Front, who had declared his support for President Rajapaksa, passed away suddenly. Some even saw this as a bad omen for the government. The CWC and the UPF had both declared in favour of Rajapaksa. Now both these organizations had been considerably weakened by defections and death. The defection of Wijedasa Rajapakse and Arjuna Ranatunga to Fonseka’s side, was nothing compared to the effect created by the defection of Yogarajan and Sachitananthan. Both Rajapakse and Ranatunga have actually been more out than in the UPFA at least since 2007, and people had got used to not counting them among supporters of the government. Even though President Rajapaksa was elected in 2005, without the support of any of the minority political parties, and Yogarajan and Schitanathan are not really UPFA at all to begin with, still defections have a psychological impact especially in the context where each side is competing with the other to win the defections war before the election is held.

When one looks at the circumstances, one sees that the defections of both Yogarajan and Sachitanantan had less to do with the presidential election than with the parliamentary election that will follow. When a parliamentary election is in the offing, the instinct of any parliamentarian is to seek re-election. The reasons why these two men decamped is quite clear. In the case of Sachitananthan, he along with Vadivel Suresh, is one of the two Tamil parliamentarians elected from the Badulla district on the UNP list. (Over a quarter of the Badulla district population is Tamil.) The Badulla district has eight parliamentary seats and ever since elections began to be held under the proportional representation system only one seat would be won (if at all) by a Tamil. At the 1989 parliamentary elections, V.Sennan contested on the UNP ticket and lost. There was no Tamil MP from the Badulla district in that parliament. In 1994, this same V.Sennan won and the Badulla district Tamils were represented in parliament. Once again at the 2000 parliamentary elections, no Tamil was elected. At the 2001 parliamentary elections, K.Velayudan was elected. It was only at the 2004 parliamentary election that two Tamil MPs came in for the first time by some fluke. This is obviously not a situation that can continue and those two MPs who got elected cannot assume that they will both be returned to parliament from the Badulla district next time. On the contrary, they should assume that one of them will definitely drop out and that there is even the possibility of both of them losing and leaving the Badulla district without a Tamil MP as has happened in previous elections.

M.Sachitananthan

There is no doubt at all that of the two Badulla district Tamil MPs, it’s the young first timer Vadivel Suresh who has stolen the show even though he came in last on the UNP list in 2004. The Badulla district is one district where the up-country Tamil vote appears to have gone in favour of the UPFA as was evident from the Uva provincial council election last year where the UPFA managed to get nearly 68% of the vote in the district. The Badulla district has always been a stronghold of the UNP. They have traditionally commanded the majority vote among both the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The invariable distribution of seats in the Badulla district through several past parliamentary elections has been five for the UNP and its allies and three for the SLFP led coalition - as it is even in the present parliament. In such circumstances, for the UPFA to win 68% of the vote was nothing less than remarkable. In the wake of the UPFA’s resounding and unexpected victory in the Badulla district, the present columnist hailed it in a Sinhala newspaper column under the headline "Vadivel’s feat". Sachitananthan was a forgotten figure. Sachitananthan and Vadivel are both deputy ministers and hold the same rank. Sachitananthan was the deputy minister of education and Vadivel is the deputy minister of healthcare and nutrition.

Both these are vital areas of interest for the up country Tamils as they lag behind both in education and in healthcare and nutrition. But of these two, Vadivel is undoubtedly the more popular figure. In fact many readers would have heard of deputy minister Sachitanathan only on the day he crossed over to the UNP. Sachitanathan does not stand even a ghost of a chance of being re-elected on the UPFA ticket from the Badulla district at the forthcoming parliamentary elections. In any case, only one Tamil MP can come in from the Badulla district if at all. From the beginning of the proportional representation system, Tamil MPs have been elected to the Badulla district only from the UNP. Obviously, Sachitanathan has sought to steal the march from Vadivel by contesting on the UNP ticket so that his deficiencies in the public domain would be counter balanced by the UNP party loyalties of the Tamil voters. Had Sachitananthan contested on the UPFA ticket, he would not have had any chance at all. However, now that he has re-joined the UNP, he has at least a fighting chance against Vadivel.

In the case of R.Yogarajan, he is a Colombo based CWC politician. The CWC supports President Rajapaksa but Yogarajan would not have stood a chance as a UPFA candidate because it is very unlikely that any Tamil candidate on the UPFA list would win in the Colombo district. A clearly demonstrated trend over many elections is that the majority of Tamil voters in the Colombo district would rather vote UNP than SLFP/UPFA. Hence, if Yogarajan is to have any hope of getting into parliament at all, he has to contest on the UNP ticket. There however is a problem here as well. The Colombo district has a large Tamil population and has twenty seats in parliament. Yet only one Tamil has been elected to parliament from the Colombo district since the beginning of the proportional representation system, and that too invariably from the UNP. At the 1989 parliamentary elections, M.S.Sellasamy was elected the Tamil MP from Colombo. In 1994, the two UNP Tamil candidates, P.Devaraj and R.Yogarajan, initially failed to get elected at the parliamentary elections. But then Colombo district parliamentarians Ossie Abeygunasekera and Weerasinghe Mallimarachchi were both killed in the Thotalanga bomb blast and both Devaraj and Yogaragjan managed to make it to parliament as they were appointed to fill the vacancies. At the 2000 parliamentary elections, no Tamil candidate won in the Colombo district. In 2001, Mano Ganesan became the Tamil MP for the Colombo district. In 2004, for the first time, two Tamil MPs T.Maheswaran and Mano Ganesan were both elected to parliament from the Colombo district.

R.Yogarajan

So in both the Badulla and Colombo districts, we see the election of two Tamil MPs each, in a situation where the realistic number would be only one in each district. Somebody has to give way. Yogarajan will be contesting the Colombo district at the forthcoming parliamentary elections. But for the UNP, getting Yogarajan in may not result in a net gain because if he enters parliament from the Colombo district, that may knock Mano Ganesan out. So it will be simply a case of replacing Ganesan with Yogarajan. There cannot be two Indian Tamils elected to parliament from Colombo. Such a thing has never happened before. As I pointed out earlier, the only reason why Both Devaraj and Yogarajan got into parliament in 1994 was the Thotalanga bomb blast. Even though two Tamil MPs were elected in 2004, T. Maheswaran was a Jaffna Tamil and the Indian Tamils had only Mano Ganesan. It does not seem likely that the Jaffna Tamils living in Colombo will vote for either Ganesan or Yogarajan. Leadership from within the Tamil community comes from Jaffna, with the Indian Tamils following and not the other way about.

So it’s going to be a keen contest for the Indian Tamil vote in Colombo between Ganesan and Yogarajan. It’s reported that Genesan was very upset at the UNP for having taken in Yogarajan without even consulting him, and he should be, because what would otherwise have been a one horse race for him in Colombo has turned into a contest. The advantage that Ganesan has is that he has convincingly defeated Yogarajan in 2004. Mano Ganesan got around 52,000 votes as against Yogarajan’s 39,000. But public support is fickle, and there is always a risk when there is competition. For example, T.Maheswaran’s entry into politics in 2004 pushed Ganesan down the list and he came in last on the UNP list in 2004. Of course, Ganesan has been more visible in Tamil politics, even taking up the cause of northern Tamils living in Colombo and trying to broad base his support in that manner. He has even appointed a Jaffna Tamil as the secretary of his political party. Hence he may still have an edge against Yogarajan.

In the meantime, what impact will the defection of Yogarajan and Sachithananthan have on the CWC? In the case of the Badulla district, the election of two Tamil MP’s was a fluke as we showed earlier; and by losing Vadivel Suresh they have lost their best man in the Badulla district. Since Sachithanathan had no chance of survival at the forthcoming parliamentary election, the CWC loses nothing really by his defection. In the case of Yogarajan, he contested parliament and lost and the position of national organizer of the CWC was only a consolation prize. He has never won a parliamentary election and managed to get into parliament in 1994, only by accident as we pointed out earlier. Mano Ganesan in contrast won clear victories in 2001 and again in 2004. By taking in Yogarajan the UNP has not really brought in anything new, because it is very unlikely that Yogarajan without the CWC, will be able to bring in any Indian Tamil votes that had not already been brought in by Genesan. So all the UNP has done by taking in Yogarajan is to upset their winning horse Ganesan. It’s quite clear that the UNP was looking mainly at the psychological impact that such defections will have on the other side rather than any real electoral advantage. In the case of Sachitananthan, however, the UNP at least has a candidate they can pit against Vadivel in the Badulla district. While it is true that the UNP has been able to do very well in the Nuwara Eliya district even without the support of the CWC and the UPF because of their rising Tamil star A.Digambaram, the point is that Digambaram’s influence does not extend to the Badulla district. Besides, Sachitananthan got nearly 45,000 preference votes in 2004, as against Vadivel’s 37,500 and even though Vadivel has been able to eclipse him subsequently, still Sachitananthan is an asset in the Badulla district to an otherwise candidate-less UNP.

Chandrasekeran’s demise

What impact will the untimely demise of P.Chandrasekeran have on the UPFA and UNP campaigns is another question one has to consider. Chandrasekaran certainly had considerable support in the Nuwara Eliya district. He contested on his own against both the UNP-CWC combine on the one hand, and the UPFA on the other in 2004 and still got elected to parliament. As such his party gets to nominate his replacement. The Up-country People’s Front has one national list MP S.Radhakrishnan appointed on the UNP list. Chandrasekeran’s wife has taken over the leadership of the party. Parliamentarian and deputy minister of vocational and technical training S.Radhakrishnan is a Vice-president of the party and he informed this columnist that nothing has changed with regard to the support the party has extended to President Rajapaksa. Radhakrishnan was given a degree of prominence by being appointed to a presidential committee to look into allegations of abductions and disappearances along with Rajitha Senaratne, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and others.

Up to now, the Tamil politics of the Nuwara Eliya district has been dominated by the CWC and the Up-country People’s Front. The CWC had three of the four Tamil parliamentarians in the Nuwara Eliya district and the UPF had one. Recently however that dominance by the two established political entities in the Nuwara Eliya district was seriously challenged by upstarts Digambaram and Sathasivam who won the crucial Nuwaraeliya-Maskeliya electorate for the UNP at the central provincial council elections. If the Up-country People’s front goes into decline after Chandrasekeran, the next man to step into the power vacuum will be A.Digambaram who came first in the Nuwara Eliya district on the UNP ticket at the last Central Provincial Council election.

In the Nuwara Eliya district, there is a battle brewing between the CWC big guns on the one hand and the upstart politicians of the hill country. After the central PC elections, the excuse the CWC and the UPF made for their poor showing was that this was the A team of the dissidents contesting against the B team of the established parties. But in a contest where the A teams of both the establishment and the upstarts come face to face, their argument was that the establishment parties would win. We may have the opportunity to witness this clash if the CWC continues to remain within the government at the next parliamentary elections. It would appear that Digambaram’s success at the last central PC election was partly due his personal popularity but a good part of it was also due to the advantage he had over the CWC and the UPFA in that he contested under the UNP’s elephant symbol, whereas the CWC and the UPFA had to contest under their own symbols or under the betel leaf symbol of the ruling coalition. In terms of votes, Digambaram is still a Liliputian compared with the big guns of the CWC.

At the 2004 parliamentary elections, there were three CWC members elected on the UNP ticket and all of them got well over 81,000 votes with Arumugam Thondaman getting nearly 100,000. Digambaram in contrast, got only 45,000 preference votes at the last CPC elections. So if we envisage a situation where the CWC contests under the betel leaf symbol and Digambaram contests under the elephant symbol at the next parliamentary elections, what we will have is the same distribution of seats as in 2004 – three seats for the CWC and one for Digambaram in place of Chandrasekeran. Given the huge gap in preference votes, it is unlikely that Digambaram will be able to oust the CWC’s heavyweights even if they contest under the unfamiliar betel leaf symbol. S.Sathasivam was along with Digambaram, a member of the winning UNP team that toppled the CWC and the UPF at the last CPC election. But Sathasivam got only 20,000 preference votes and that is not going to get him anywhere near parliament.

Rise of Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam

With regard to northern Tamil politics, it has become necessary to write a sequel to last week’s column. The alignments are not static and they keep changing from week to week as the negotiations and arguments rage within the TNA. A TNA delegation consisting of R.Sambandan and Mavai Senathirajah met President Rajapaksa for talks last week and the newspapers reported that the talks had not been successful. That is hardly surprising because as we reported last week, Sambandan and Senathiraja are among the TNA MP’s who have openly declared their support for Fonseka and were canvassing within the TNA to get the other parliamentarians to support their stand. The day before Sambandan and Senathirajah had met the president, they had a meeting with Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam of the (All Ceylon Tamil Congress) and MPs M.K.Sivajilingam and Selvam Adaikalanathan of TELO. Sambandan had told the MPs present that he would be meeting the president and invited them to come along with him. But the others turned down the invitation. TELO has already fielded their candidate Sivajilingam and the ACTC has already announced a boycott of the election.

As of now, of the 22 TNA parliamentarians five MP’s support Sarath Fonseka. Last week it was only four. What has happened is that Sambandan, Mavai Senathirajah, Suresh Premachandran, and Sivashakthi Ananthan have managed to persuade Trincomalee district MP K. Thureiratnasingham to join their camp. The four TELO parliamentarians, M.K.Sivajilingam, Selvam Adaikalanathan, N.Srikantha and Vino Noharathalingam support only their own candidate. A new development is that Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, the sole All Ceylon Tamil Congress MP, has emerged as a power broker in his own right with several independent MPs supporting his call for a boycott of the election. The Independents who have aligned themselves with Ponnambalam include Selvarajah Kajendran, P.Sitamparanathan, and Solomon Cyril. S.Jeyanandamoorthy who is overseas has also expressed his support for Ponnambalam as has national list MP Chandrakanthan Chandranehru. Batticaloa district MPs Tangeswari Kathiraman and P.Ariyanethiran are among those who have been saying that neither of the two main candidates should be supported. They have not yet declared their hand clearly, but these two MP’s are expected to join Ponnambalam’s camp. Batticaloa district MP T.Kanagasabai and T.T.William have also been saying that neither of the two main candidates should be supported. However they have not yet indicated whether they are going to join the Ponnambalam camp or support Sivajilingam’s candidacy. The only Muslim MP in the TNA, R.M.Imam is as non-committal as ever, and Sivanathan Kishor is still the sole TNA parliamentarian who seems to be in favour of President Rajapaksa’s candidacy. The TELO MPs are negotiating with the ACTC to win over its support for Sivajilingam’s candidacy, but nothing has come of it as yet. In the meantime, Vanni district parliamentarian Sathasivam Kanagaratnam who was found among the Puthumathalan IDPs and is still in detention, has been appealing to all sides to maintain unity within the TNA and not take things to the extent of a split.

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