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Winning the contest for Tamil votes – upiasia.com

[MISC, Wednesday, 23 December 2009 11:41 No Comment]

Whether the Tamil people in Sri Lanka will vote for former army commander General Sarath Fonseka or the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential election next month has become an important question.

In departing from the armed forces and joining the opposition, Fonseka has deprived the government leadership of a monopoly on credit for the victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. This means Rajapaksa can no longer appeal to the majority Sinhalese electorate for their vote of gratitude.

Fonseka’s entry into politics has rejuvenated the opposition, particularly the United National Party, which was unable to face up to the president’s war victory and appeal to the ethos of the Sinhalese electorate.

Many traditional UNP voters from the Sinhalese ethnic majority were expected to vote either for Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance party or for other Sinhalese nationalist parties. But with Fonseka emerging as the common opposition candidate, there is a strong likelihood of the renegade UNP voters returning to the fold.

In these circumstances, the ethnic majority vote is likely to be divided along traditional party lines and the Sinhalese vote could be more or less evenly split between the two candidates. The advantage that Rajapaksa accrues as the incumbent president will be offset by the votes from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party that will go to Fonseka.

Unlike in past elections, Rajapaksa can no longer be confident of obtaining a decisive majority of Sinhalese votes, enabling him to ignore the ethnic minority vote. The minority vote is important in the context of a split in the Sinhalese vote.

Ethnic minorities account for about 25 percent of the electorate and their vote can be decisive in determining which candidate will prevail in the presidential election. In the 2005 election, the LTTE’s enforced boycott in the north and east kept out at least half a million Tamil voters. Rajapaksa won only by a slender margin of 180,000 votes.

In the forthcoming election, both candidates are bidding for the ethnic minority vote. As the largest minority, the Tamil vote is particularly important, but there is doubt whether the Tamil people will vote. Unless they are encouraged to register as voters, many may not bother to do so, as they feel the effort provides no benefit to them. On the other hand, as head of government, Rajapaksa has a clear 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 best decision has been to release all internally displaced persons from welfare centers to which they had earlier been confined. They have instead been given the choice to either stay in the centers or leave.

Besides, 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 with the rest of the country.

While the concessions are certainly welcomed by Tamil voters, most are likely to see them as merely regaining their lost rights. The government may have to do more than just restore rights, which 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 president’s younger brother Basil Rajapaksa and the pledge to implement a progressive political solution to the ethnic conflict may be important in influencing the vote of the Tamil electorate.

However, the major problem of the government is to convince the Tamil people that it is sincere and will keep its promises. The government has been promising a political solution for ethnic minorities for the past three or more years, but has not delivered on it.

Not only on this issue, but the president’s disappointing track record of not keeping his promises in general suggests that further promises will not be sufficient to sway voters. Rather, only concrete action will. If Rajapaksa so desired, there are political reforms that could assuage Tamil sentiment that he could put into effect without much delay.

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