12 January 2015

The (quick) ‘ethnicization’ of the result

In 2005 when Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President, it was argued that he won because of the LTTE ordering Tamils living in areas controlled by that organization to boycott the election.  Had they voted, Mahinda’s opponent Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP would have got that ‘extra something’ needed to win, it is argued. 

Decent enough argument, although it is presumptuous to speculate about the ‘may have’ of voter-choice.  However, stressing the point somehow devalues the votes that did get cast.  It is ridiculous, for example, to place higher value on votes un-cast than one those that were counted. 

Today we see a similar under/over valuation of ethnic-composition with respect to the result of the Presidential Election.  Not surprisingly these are exercises indulged in by those fixated by identity politics.  They assume, erroneously, that people are essentially one dimensional and they make choices based solely on notions of identity, ethnic or religious.

The reason for this is the fact that the Northern and Eastern Provinces went to Maithripala Sirisena, who was supported by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the Tamil National Alliance.  The strengths of these parties being in the above mentioned provinces clearly give credence to the claim. 

There are separatists, federalists and devolutionists of various hues who have re-hashed the 2005 argument, claiming ‘Tamils (and Muslims) made Maithripala the President’.  On the other hand, ardent Mahinda loyalists or rather the diehard Sinhala Buddhists in that camp argue that the result is a victory for Eelamists, federalists and devolutionists based on, ironically, the same (mis) reading of voting patterns. 

The truth is that Tamils in the Northern Province did not vote en bloc for Sirisena.  He got close to 400,000 from Jaffna and Vanni.  Mahinda Rajapaksa polled a little over 100,000 in these electoral districts or approximately 20% of the total votes cast.  That 100,000 are not Sinhala Buddhists.  It is different in the Eastern Province of course, with the more multi-ethnic nature of the province.

How about applying this logic to the districts that Maithripala did not win?  When you just color districts on the map without the relevant vote breakdown, you get a very skewed and distorted picture of voting patterns.  Mahinda Rajapaksa won Kalutara, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Moneragala, Ratnapura, Kegalle, Matale, Kurunegala and Anuradhapura, but Maithripala Sirisena secured more than 40% in each of these districts except Hambantota (35.9%) and Moneragala (37.45%).  They were not ‘all blue’ so to speak.  Similarly, Mahinda was only a close second in Gampaha (49.49%), Badulla (49.15%) and Puttalam (48.97%), while polling over 40% in Colombo, Kandy and Polonnaruwa.   These districts, then, were not ‘all green (with apologies to Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP of course)’. 

Here’s what really puts the matter to rest.  Of those who voted for Maithripala, only 6.2% were from the North and 9.4% from the East, keeping in mind that Sinhalese make up 23% in the latter province.  So, the ‘minority’ share of ‘victory’ is just 15.6%.  It is ridiculous to think that Maithripala will let this segment wag the 84.4% of the rest, keeping in mind, also, that he is President for all, not just those who voted for him.   

We can leave all this aside and ask the question, ‘are Tamils not citizens?’  They certainly are.  And they can vote for who  THEY like and don’t have to vote for who ‘Sinhala Nationalists’ prefer.  Remember also, that in this election, it was the Tamils who were harassed most in getting to the polling stations and this by TAMIL backers of Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

In short, Maithripala could not have won without the Sinhala Buddhist vote.  And he might have even lost if Champika Ranawaka and Rev Athureliya Rathana Thero were not part of his equation, considering the fact that the JHU’s ‘departure’ was a key precipitating factor and more than this the fact that Ranawaka was the strongest voice in the entire campaign. 

Anyway, arguing that the TNA is ‘Eelamist’ (if it is not, the TNA certainly has done little to lay that perception to rest) and therefore the ‘Tamil vote’ is a vote by Eelamists for Eelam with Maithripala in tacit acknowledgment of all this is simplistic.  It assumes that people want nothing else represented other than such objectives, that they are not interested in law and order, good governance, dealing with crime and corruption, the cost of living, employment opportunities, better access to healthcare and education etc.  It I like saying that since known thugs backed Mahinda Rajapaksa all those who voted for him in electorates where the campaign was organized by these thugs were themselves thugs. 

What’s forgotten in all this is that this was the first presidential election where ‘ethnic issues’ took a back seat. Indeed, there was little or no mention of that which had dominated all presidential elections since 1982.  No talk of devolution. Nothing of the 13th Amendment.  Nothing of ‘minority rights’.  The only ‘ethnic’ or ‘religious’ factor was that two parties that prey on identity, the TNA and SLMC chose to support a particular candidate.  No agreements.  No MoUs.  Indeed, one can fault both candidates for leaving this vexed issue out of the story because you can keep it out of manifesto and speech but you can’t make it go away. 

The fact remains that the winner clearly stated that there would be no change in the national security status quo and that the unitary character of the state will not be touched, that sovereignty and territorial integrity will similarly be kept intact.  So, if we flip the communal argument, one can even say that by backing a candidate, coalition and manifesto that so strongly affirmed these elements that are so clearly identified with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime, the TNA was essentially ‘backing off’

While an ethnic-privileging reading of results is certainly useful, it is perhaps more useful to read certain trends about other issues that matter for the people.   It was pointed out by someone that the particular candidate lost the electorates from which those who defected to his side belonged.  Dambulla, Mihintale and Seruwila were all won by Mahinda.  And Maithripala secured Tissa Attanayake’s electorate. Interestingly, Maithripala lost Attanagalle, the stronghold of Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose role in the entire election has been widely overrated. 
Interestingly also, the same commentator pointed out, the poorest electoral division in Sri Lanka, Anamaduwa, voted solidly for Mahinda.  Now that’s a line of analysis that the ‘ethnicists’ are avoiding. 

Clearly there is a call for a de-ethnicization of politics, which means that the ‘ethnic’ component of national concerns should be realistically proportioned and not allowed to balloon according to the inflationary whims of ‘ethnicists’.  Perhaps the current focus on bestowing meaning to citizenship (through institutional reform that yields better governance) will help.  All power to the new President in this.



DIL said...

Come on Malinda your statistics may be correct but your fundamental theme is wrong. All the opposition wanted was "Mahinda out" not any of the other issues like COL, minority grievances etc.This they achieved with a thumping minority vote and that is the fact.you're right every citizen has a rightful vote but that vote has been used in this instance to get "Mahinda out" and then address the other agendas. This is where it's going to fail miserably and In the process SL will stall.