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The Surprising Power Of Tamils

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Sunday, 24 January 2010 10:23 No Comment]

By Indi Samarajiva in Jaffna

The big question is whether Tamils will vote, and how. Last election all the polling data pointed to a Ranil victory if they came out. The LTTE stopped people from voting, and that ended up being pretty much the difference. I just got back from Jaffna and drove through the Wanni, and the place is now secured. The Wanni is in no condition to really vote, but I think Jaffna will. The question is how.

General feeling

The general feeling is that they won’t vote for Mahinda Rajapaksa. They weren’t inclined to vote for him before and they’re less likely to after the ruthless war, his Tamilian avatars aside. However, it is not clear that they will vote for Sarath Fonseka, the blade of that ruthless war. A man I met in Point Pedro put it best: “They’re both the same, but I’m voting for change.” He was voting for Fonseka. It doesn’t make sense, but it does.

Hence, in the numbers I’ve seen, a majority of Sri Lankan Tamils are breaking towards Sarath Fonseka. Not an overwhelming majority, but over fifty. This seems to be the feeling on the street as well. Jaffna (outside the town, really) is the only place I’ve seen a lot of SF posters, and the only place I’ve seen Mahinda posters defaced.

Party influences

One big variable, however, is that the last Tamil politician standing, Douglas Devananda, is a visible supporter of Mahinda. Dougie D has survived about a dozen attempts by the LTTE to kill him, but he remains after they are gone. He seems to have muscle and organisational ability, but I don’t know how much support. One man I spoke to said that whatever the government is, Douglas will be on that side. In this party politics, however, the support from the EPDP (Eelam Peoples Democratic Party) could move a lot of votes.

The TNA, however, is probably the strongest party in the region. Despite long being a proxy for the LTTE, they are now backing Fonseka. So that too could make a difference.

The issues

I find Sri Lankan polling a bit curious in that it skips the most obvious questions. Who are you related to, what caste are you, who has given you food or visited you recently? These tend to be the things that swing votes. However, what polling data I have seen shows that (A) Tamils are swinging to Fonseka and (B) economic and law and order issues are gaining on ethnic and war issues. However, Sri Lankan Tamils do have a host of war-related issues (displacement, discrimination) which don’t even really register in the south.

Candidates have been trying to assuage these concerns mainly by showing up and taking their shirts off at kovil but, interestingly, The Sunday Leader debacle where Sarath accused Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa of ordering war crimes may have, while embarrassing him in the south, somehow inoculated him against seeming the war baddie in the north.

It effectively diverted the blame for all the bad parts of the war to the Rajapaksas, or could have had that perceptual effect among Tamils. Either way, the TNA gave Fonseka its support soon after and he started polling better in the north.  I think all of this is a good thing. Tamil people have so much power in the political process whereas terrorism just disenfranchised them and empowered the worst and most violent leaders.

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