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Elections to Local Bodies – An Indian Perspective


V. Suryanarayan and Ashik Bonofer
 The results of elections to local bodies, held on March 17, 2011 and July 23, 2011 and subsequent comments made by Sinhalese and Tamil leaders clearly indicate that the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka is getting sharpened.
Two years after the decimation of the Tigers the Government is determined to impose a solution which reflects the will of the Sinhala majority. There is no attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Tamils by convincing them that they are equal stake holders in the present and future of Sri Lanka.

Basil Rajapaksa’s comment is an illustration of heightened Sinhala chauvinism. Asked for his comments on the TNA winning majority of local bodies in the Tamil areas and the necessity to devolve powers, Basil Rajapaksa brushed it aside and said, “The President has a bigger mandate not to give those powers”. He added “they are talking of the mandate, how about ours, one accepted by a larger majority in the country?” On the other hand, speaking recently in Chennai Suresh Premachandran, the TNA Member of Parliament asserted that the electoral verdict is a vindication of the party’s stance. The Tamils should not be treated as a minority, but as an ethnic group whose cultural identity should be fostered and promoted. Premachandran maintained that the massive mandate was an endorsement of the Party’s demands for speedy rehabilitation of the internally displaced people, rapid development of the war ravaged economy and substantial devolution of powers to the north and the east.

A more balanced description of the current political situation in the island was provided by Chandrika Kumaratunga, the former President of Sri Lanka. Delivering Justice Palakidnar Memorial oration on July 24, 2011 in Colombo Chandrika mentioned certain stark realities. Chandrika summed them up as follows: “Low levels of development of infra-structure, relatively much less opportunity to access quality education and employment, and political marginalization with minimal opportunity to participate in decision making processes in the political and administrative super structures, together with the language barriers erected by the “Sinhala only” policy, are undoubtedly the root causes that gave rise to the terribly violent conflict in our country. The continuous rejection by the State of the demands of the Tamil movement for language parity led to increased demands for power sharing through federalism and finally for a separate state. Unless these grim realities are recognised and speedy remedial action undertaken, Sri Lanka will continue to face ethnic discontent”. Prophetic words, but the tragedy is there are no takers for suggestions of sanity among the majority Sinhalese.

Local Bodies have no Powers

Unlike India, where through Constitutional amendment, Panchayats have been vested with powers and thirty per cent of the seats have been exclusively reserved for women, the local bodies in Sri Lanka are a political anachronism. In a unitary state,powers are concentrated in the Central Government. Even the powers devolved to the Provinces under 13th Amendment to the Constitution are being whittled progressively. As far as the local bodies are concerned, as the pro-government English newspaper, Daily News, has underlined in an editorial “they are in a moribund state in their present formation and more or less behind the times failing to meet the new demands and aspirations of the grass root population for whom they are primarily meant”.

Elections in Two Phases

The local body elections were held in two phases, the first phase on March 17, 2011 and the second phase on July 23, 2011. Elections to 23 local bodies including the Municipal Councils of Colombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Jaffna, will be held in January 2012. The July 23 elections pertained to 299 of the 335 local bodies. The turnout was 63.57 per cent.

The results revealed two contrasting scenarios. In the southern Sinhala dominated areas, the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) polled 56.98 votes and romped home in 250 local bodies. The opposition United National Party (UNP) gave a poor performance in terms of seats won. Though it polled 31.31 per cent votes, it could win only 9 local bodies. The radical Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) was routed. It lost the Tissamaharama Pradeshiya Sabha which it had controlled since 2002. One contributory factor to the poor performance of the UNP should be underlined. The party’s strongholds like Colombo did not go to polls during the second phase. The UNP was also ridden with factionalism and this factor resulted in poor turnout in several areas. Despite mounting unemployment, rising prices and labour unrest the radical JVP could not exploit these grievances to its advantage. The division within its ranks and the public disenchantment about its inability to extract benefits for the working class from a government, in which it is a partner, were important contributory causes for its dismal performance. Many political commentators are writing the obituary of the JVP. But the Authors do not share this perception. As contradictions grow in Sri Lanka and along with it political unrest, the JVP can exploit these contradictions to its advantage, provided it embarks on a reevaluation of its policies and programmes.

As far as the north and the east are concerned, the results heralded an unprecedented victory for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The TNA won 30 local authorities, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) under Ananda Shankari won 2, the UNP won 9, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) won 4 and the UPFA won 2. Pakiasothy Saravanamuthu rightly characterized the electoral verdict in the north and the east as a “stinging rebuke to the regime, its rhetoric and propaganda”.

Polarisation between the North (Tamil dominated) and the South (Sinhala dominated) is not a new political phenomenon. In the 1977 parliamentary elections, the UNP under the leadership of JR Jeyawardene, romped home winning more than 4/5 of the parliamentary seats. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) fared miserably and it could not even get the second place. The second place, and, therefore, the major opposition party, was the TULF which received massive endorsement in the north and considerably less support in the east. The leader of the TULF Amirtalingam became the leader of opposition, a position which he did not expect to occupy before the election. However, the comparison ends there. Certain political realities in 1977 must be underlined. The UNP under Jeyawardene was more sensitive to Tamil aspirations than the present UPFA under President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The 1977 election manifesto of the UNP listed out the Tamil grievances and held forth the promise that if voted to power it would hold an all party conference to resolve the ethnic issue. The Tamil grievances were listed in the manifesto due to the persuasive skills of Savumyamurthy Thondaman, the leader of the Indian Tamils. In fact, in the 1977 elections, the Tamils living outside the north and the east voted overwhelmingly for the UNP. But the promises made in the manifesto were soon forgotten. The All Party Conference was not held and, what is more, the UNP began to strengthen itself in the north and the east. The sage counsel of Thondaman that the UNP should not field candidates against the TULF in the district council elections was not heeded which led to sharpening of differences between the two ethnic groups. The UNP leader Thiagarajah was assassinated by Tamil militants, the Sinhalese hoodlums burnt the Jaffna library leading inexorably to the parting of the ways between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

UPFA Makes Local Body Elections a Prestige Issue

Not only did he receive endorsement in the presidential elections, he won the parliamentary elections hands down winning more than two thirds majority. Perhaps no other political leader in Sri Lanka during recent times has received such a massive endorsement from the majority Sinhalese. At the same time, his image in the comity of nations has come down. The gross human rights violations during the final phase of the Fourth Eelam War has been documented by international human rights organizations like the Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group in addition to BBC documentaries like Channel 4. The defiance which the President and his close advisors are displaying is leading further to his unpopularity in several countries, including neighbouring India. Mahinda Rajapaksa, in that context, wanted to score a victory in the local bodies elections in the north and the east which will be a proof that he has the solid support of the Tamils. The local body elections, therefore, became a matter of prestige for the President and the UPFA.

The President and important leaders of the UPFA visited the north and the east and campaigned systematically for the UPFA. Their main electoral plank was rapid development of the war ravaged economy of the north and the east. Development will lead to the overall development and the Tamils will become important stake holders of the future of Sri Lanka. What the President and his close associates did not understand was that in the perception of majority of Tamils the crucial question facing them was a just political solution involving substantial devolution of powers. In this vital sphere, the record of the Government was abysmal. The continuing presence of the Sri Lankan army, increasing Sinhala settlements in the Tamil areas, the existence of high security zones, the use of paramilitary forces for opportunist gains and the high handedness of ruling classes were matters of great concern to the Tamils. Equally important, in the Tamil perception, rightly or wrongly, all those who were willing to collaborate with the government were traitors to the Tamil cause. Douglas Devananda, within his limitations, has tried to restore normalcy in Tamil areas, but his association with the ruling junta has made him thoroughly unpopular. Except in the outer islands, where Douglas maintains his sway, the Tamils rejected his leadership outright.

While development is crucial, more important is the establishment of a political system where Tamils will be equal citizens, retaining their separate cultural identity while living in a united Sri Lanka. It is necessary to recall that in 1984 the Committee for Rational Development undertook a study and published a book entitled Sri Lanka: The Ethnic Conflict – Myths, Realities and Perspectives concerning the relative status of various ethnic groups in several crucial areas of development. One conclusion is worth quoting here. In the crucial dimension of Physical Quality of Life (PQLI), which is based on three indicators, life expectancy, literacy and infant mortality, Jaffna district enjoyed the highest general living standards. And the study also found that as far as unemployment rates are concerned, the figures were: Kandyan Sinhalese – 13.9 %, Low Country Sinhalese 18.9 %, Sri Lankan Tamils 10.9 per cent, Indian Tamils 5.6 % and all island : 14.8 %. But this relative prosperity did not contribute to the reduction of ethnic tensions; on the contrary, the post 1983 era witnessed exacerbation of the ethnic conflict. What we want to underline is that while lack of development can contribute to discontent, development alone, without corresponding devolution, can never be a panacea for several ills afflicting Sri Lanka.

Electoral Malpractices

Determined to win by any means, the ruling coterie used both carrot and stick. In a recent speech in Chennai Suresh Premachandran pointed out that Thirumangalam was perfected in Sri Lanka. For those who do not know what Thirumangalam is, it is the constituency in Madurai where the DMK bribed the voters in cash and in kind. TNA leader R. Sampanthan has alleged that the voters were subjected to “threats and intimidation, undue influence and bribery”. The first indoor meeting of the TNA in Alaveddy on June 16, 2011 was disturbed by the military and the audience was assaulted. The houses of candidates were stoned and a dog’s head was severed and kept at the gate of a candidate while the body was thrown into the compound. International Monitoring Teams were not present and even the Centre for Monitoring Violence (CMEV) did not deploy monitors in the north. The ruling party, to some extent, attained its objective of intimidating the voters, the voter turn out in the northern district was only 52 per cent, whereas the national average was 64 per cent.

What Next?

The ethnic polarisation which is taking place in Sri Lanka does not augur well for stability and security. The increasing disenchantment of the Tamils against the policies of the Government – what forms will it take need to be seen. If the President and the ruling party are genuinely interested in ethnic reconciliation, they must immediately give up the policy of majoritarianism which had been the main stumbling block towards peace since the dawn of independence. Magnanimity in victory, which many democrats consider to be the hall mark of statesmen, is completely absent in Sri Lanka. If the aspirations of the Tamil minority groups are ignored at the altar of Sinhala majoritarinism, history may repeat itself in the island republic. For those who do not learn from history, they will be compelled to relive it.

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan, former Senior Professor and Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, is currently Senior Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. His e mail address: and Ashik Bonofer is Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. His e mail address:


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