Note: This piece appeared on Groundviews on the 29th of January, two days after the election results and (to my surprise and discomfort) was republished by Mangala Samaraweera on his website on the 1st of Feb 2010.
I wrote on the 30th of December in a post to Groundviews (and republished in the Daily Mirror) that the assertion that the Tamil people would be deciders in the Presidential election would be a myth. There was nothing brilliant or extraordinary about what I said at that time, but it was contrary to public perception that was prevalent all over the country and in international media circles. What I suggested was that for the Tamil people to be deciders two conditions have to be fulfilled. I wrote:
“For the Tamils to be the deciders in the election (like they could have been in the last) they have to vote as a whole, to one candidate and the Sinhala votes to both candidates should be almost equal.”
A lot of people thought it would be close in the South. I feared a good lead for Mahinda Rajapaksha in the rural south. I told my friends that a 600,000-800,000 lead in the South by Mahinda cannot be offset by SF by the margins that he receives in Minority areas. I never expected a 1.8 million lead for him in the South. Some of it might have been rigged. We just don’t know and we will never know. But one thing is clear the rural south did come out strongly for him.
I voted in the Nallur electorate in the Jaffna electoral district and I did vote for General Sarath Fonseka. My early impression was that both candidates did not deserve my vote but I soon altered my stance. For me taking a decision to spoil the vote meant not believing in the system. The system is indeed fundamentally flawed but then if we can’t change things democratically, the only alternative is for change to be attempted violently. Most in this country are tired of losing lives and I am definitely one of them. So the option of not believing in the system was not open to me. It was just inconsequential. I also thought that it is not right to approach this elections standing from an ivory tower of personal conscience and die hard political philosophy and principle. Politics, including the act of voting, is about taking tough decisions. I did not have the energy for another MR presidency. I was convinced that a vote for anyone else but SF would in effect indirectly contribute to a MR Presidency. The unknown devil at least I thought would provide an opportunity to try something differently. If the SF presidency even by a fraction or a chance might have increased the collective opportunity of life over death of the Tamil community I thought it was my duty to vote for him. And hence I voted for Sarath Fonseka, despite his flaws, despite the vaguness vis a vis his position on the problems of the minorities, despite his anti-minority pronouncements in the past, despite his role in the war. I voted for him because it was the only strong way of showing my protest to the incumbent and because I believed in the political forces supporting him. It was an uncomfortable decision to take but I had no other option.
The voter turnout in Jaffna
Many have expressed concern about the ‘poor turnout’ in Jaffna. Some die hard SF supporters were annoyed with the turnout. Some Pro-LTTE and Anti- LTTE Tamil Diaspora sites who opposed TNA’s decision to support SF have called the low voter turnout a boycott. Some know-it-all types in the Diaspora have said that the Jaffna people are not interested in a democracy. Nothing can be more insulting.
The following are some reasons for the ‘low voter turnout’, in my opinion:
- 40% of registered voters are not in Jaffna. The 600,000 registered voters includes those migrated. Many Tamils in Colombo who moved from Jaffna have their vote in Jaffna – they are not registered in Colombo.
- Killinochchi low voting (Killinochchi is part of the Jaffna electoral district. Only 7% voting was recorded mainly because of the poor state of facilities provided for the IDPs to vote),
- Bomb scare in TNA strongholds on the day of the elections (example Nallur, Manipay),
- Internal displacement within Jaffna (From the Islands to the mainland. From Chavahacheri (Thenmarachchi) to Jaffna and other places). People possibly were not willing to travel 10-12 kilometers to vote.
- 80,000 people displaced by the High Security Zones (23,000 live in welfare centers and the rest with family and friends or have migrated).
The Chavahacheri, Udupiddy, Manipay, Vadukoddai, Thenmarachchi electorates in Jaffna recorded 30% voter turn out. This must be 60% of the actual residents. The Jaffna and Nallur electorates polled around 20%. The Jaffna peninsula average voter turnout should be in the high twenties and this must be at least 50% of the actual residents. If there had been no High Security Zones, internal displacement within Jaffna and proper voter registration this might have gone upto at least 60%. The 2010 turn out is the highest voter turn out ever in Jaffna in a Presidential election. The figures from the last election are:
2005 – 7.868 (1%) (Note: LTTE enforced a boycott)
1994 – 17,716 (2.97%) (Note: Jaffna was under LTTE control at this time)
1999 – 117,549 (19.18%) (Note: Killinochchi polled less than 4% – Was under LTTE control).
In 2010, 185,132 votes were polled with an average of 25%.
A comparison with the general election also shows us that this turn out is quite decent: In the 2004 General Elections Jaffna polled 300,000 votes (47%) the highest recorded in more than 20 years in election history. (I attended the only TNA rally in Jaffna on the 23rd of January in Sangilyan Thoppu, Nallur where R. Sampanthan of the TNA said that last time the margin for MR was less than 200,000 and the vote that TNA had received in the 2004 General Elections was 620,000. I thought at that time that comparing the turn out at General Elections was not good analysis). In the 2001 election around 200,000 votes were polled (30%). In 2000 around 130,000 votes were polled averaging at just over 20%. It must be remembered that in both 2001 and 2004 General Elections the TNA had the backing of the LTTE.
The voter turnout in the rest of the North and East
Batticaloa has polled a remarkably consistent 64% as in the last three presidential elections. Vavuniya polled 43% this time and voted in the 40s in 2005 and 1999. Trincomalee polled 65% and had polled in the 60s in the past three elections as well. Voter turn out in Mannar was 35%. It has been consistently in the 30s. In 2005 the turn out was 30%. None of these districts were affected by LTTE’s enforced boycott in 2005. Mullaitivu has recorded less than 4% in the past having been under LTTE control and this time recorded a 14%.
What is the message from the voter turn out in the North?
The message is that there are very serious issues to be addressed prime among them being the resettlement of IDPs. This includes both the Vanni IDPs and the Old IDPs. Demilitarisation is also key to a higher voter turn out.
What is the message from the people of the North and East at this election?
The ‘liberated’ have clearly registered their protest against their ‘liberator’. The vote in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu amongst all difficulties and however small were clearly against the President. All over the North and East this has vibrated. The Jaffna vote clearly rejects Mahinda Rajapaksha’s Chechnyan style local leader Douglas Devananda. I don’t know how Dayan Jayatilleke is going to still call him the Jaffna people’s choice. EPDP won only Kayts in the 10 electorates in the Jaffna peninsula that even by a 600 vote margin. Even in Jaffna and Nallur which make up by and large the Jaffna Municpal Council (which he supposedly won) he lost receiving only 27% and 21% of the votes. It is loud and clear from Jaffna that he is not wanted; his style of politics is not desired. (But he might do well in the general elections under an MR presidency. Patronage politics will help him for another six years). The East has similarly spoken very clearly rejecting MR’s Chechnyan style local leader V. Muralidharan alias Karuna Amman. Pillayan should be silently happy with the vote. Two years of centrally controlled pseudo-provincial council rule has been rejected by the people. (Here again the TNA might struggle at the General elections under a MR Presidency).
The vote shows a clearly divided country: 65% of the minorities (Tamils, Muslims, Up Country Tamils) preferring one candidate and more than 60% of the majority community preferring another. I do not know what else we need to show that we are far from being a united country. But the President does not seem like he wants to reflect on this message. To journalists who met him soon after the elections he has repeated the same story: “the IDPs are happy in the camps”. We are likely to see more of the same.
The way forward
I am afraid that the result might be taken negatively by the minorities and the opposition parties, that even if they come together that they cannot make an impact. But the minority parties should take the positive message – the possibility that this election gave/has given of collectively envisaging an agenda. The opposition parties have to resolve and work together to break the common sense philosophy in Sri Lanka that being in the opposition is useless. If our democratic culture is to be rejuvenated we need opposition parties to believe that an opposition can do credible work. Concrete action based on a concrete agenda that mobilizes the people has to be worked out. The minority parties have to show their communities that it is possible to serve them sitting in the opposition. A strong coalition between the TNA-SLMC-DPF is immediately possible. That should be a starter for a broader coalition of progressive forces. This Government is sure to continue to wage a war on the opposition with new force. It has to be resisted and fought back democratically. For that we need opposition leaders who believe in themselves.