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Elections, Development and Democratisation in Post - war Jaffna

by Ahilan Kadirgamar, 31 July 2011

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The Island, 30 July 2011

Elections, Development and Democratisation in Post - war Jaffna

by Ahilan Kadirgamar

As Jaffna approached local government elections two years after the war, some aspects of its social, economic and political landscape are now more apparent. Resettlement and the return of many of the displaced have been gradual; the process continues to have many economic challenges including issues of land. Economic activity has accelerated particularly in agriculture and fisheries, but also in trade with the expansion of markets after the A-9 road opened twenty months ago. Labour is heavily in demand with increasing wages as sustained economic activity has created serious shortages in skilled labour for construction and agriculture. While land prices skyrocketed last year in a post-war bubble, prices are now coming down and stabilising in many areas after improved access to services and quicker transport to Jaffna Town. Indeed, infrastructure, particularly roads, electricity, banking and telecommunications are expanding; with a visible increase in the number of vehicles and mobile phones.

However, military presence continues and is visible at every street corner adding to the climate of fear that persists. Little has also changed in the superficial engagement on post-war issues in the public sphere characterised by the asinine rhetoric and posturing of the local Tamil newspapers. Indeed, this lack of a larger political vision is very much linked to the absence of a serious post-war political process to look into the past and prepare for the future. Nevertheless, in private discussions at least, a certain self-criticism within Jaffna society on its lack of initiative and economic dependency on the diaspora, and the absence of visionary leadership in society, are being articulated. Thus the local government election was an opportunity for Jaffna society to work through some of these issues and contradictions at the local level and begin a broad based process of democratising society.

As with so many other opportunities in the post-war context, the Rajapaksa regime decided to muscle its way into a disruptive position. An election about local government in Jaffna was turned into a national circus as several ministers and the President decided to take Jaffna by storm. Patronage and electioneering which are the hallmarks of the Rajapaksa regime were pushed to the limit with massive propaganda campaigns and handouts to potential supporters. There were many farcical openings and re-openings of small development projects in addition to further promises of "development". The rational of the regime might have been to counter the recent international fall out of the UN Panel Report and the Channel 4 documentary, but little did they pause to consider that this was a population that was intimately connected with, if not the very people who suffered the decades of war. These were in fact the very people who were struggling and coming to terms with the tragic narratives of the war. The insensitivity and indignity of being bussed to meetings and preached to by Southern politicians who had little to do with the ground realities of a local election were bound to backfire. Nevertheless, the Rajapaksa regime set the terms of the election as one about economic development in opposition to a political settlement with war-time accountability. The regime perhaps thought the recent diplomatic challenges of the Western powers and India, could be deflected through a victory in the local government elections in the North.

Now the concerns of the local communities in the North are not monolithic. Each constituency has its own set of issues which should shape local representation. The newly resettled, not only in Killinochi and Mullaitivu but also in Vadamarachi East and those returning to the High Security Zones in Valikamam North have their urgent and material needs. The people in the Islands off Jaffna have particular concerns of rejuvenating their economic life after bouts of displacement and migration. The fishing communities have been engaged on issues of poaching and the need for fishing infrastructure, and the small holding farmers reviving paddy and cash crops have different needs in each location. Many of the villages are geographically divided along caste lines, with different priorities of access to services such as electricity to that of renovating small tanks, with the problem of uneven development at the local level. These disparities in the social and economic landscape should have provided for a diverse contest not only between the TNA, EPDP and TULF, but a range of other smaller parties and independent candidates, that is if the UPFA and its party machine did not disrupt the local political space.

The Rajapaksa regime, in a departure from previous regimes, has placed excessive confidence in its ability to co-opt the local. Its quest for centralised power extends not only in rejecting meaningful devolution to the provinces, but also in extending its tentacles into local government. Such centralisation of state power also characterises the militarization of civil administration. Indeed, that is the significance of increasing number of former military personnel in civil administration as with the Northern Province Governor or the Presidential Task Force or the absorption of the Urban Development Authority into the Defence Ministry.

Given these political terms on which the Rajapaksa regime pushed the local government elections in the North, the UPFA coalition suffered a resounding and deserving defeat. The mood on Election Day in Jaffna was one of defiance and protest, people went in much larger numbers than in recent elections and they openly spoke of the need to defeat the UPFA. Indeed there were acts of intimidation in the run up to the elections, but in the classic Lankan manoeuvre the people over determined the difficult political situation on Election Day. While analyses in the media have captured the significance of this election, there are a few misconceptions.

Some analyses have fallen for the Rajapaksa regime’s false dichotomy between economic development versus a political settlement, in claiming the TNA’s triumph is a victory for advocating political settlement over that of development. The issue is not one or the other, but the manner in which both are intrinsically tied to each other. Some of the TNA politicians themselves during the campaign pointed out the problem being one of excluding local communities in development initiatives. The centralised approach of the Rajapaksa regime meant, the people were not aware and certainly not able to participate in "development"; a devolved political settlement and demilitarization would have enhanced the genuine participation of the people.

Others claim that this victory for the TNA in the North is an endorsement of its Tamil nationalist politics, a politics that continues not only from its Federal party decades but also its stint as the LTTE proxy. Here again a careful reading of the TNA would reflect the hodge podge of actors who constitute the TNA with differing messages coming from them. While TNA leader Sampanthan seems to be increasingly moderating the larger demand to be that of a devolved power-sharing arrangement within a united Sri Lanka, others are singing a different tune. And when it comes to election rhetoric in meetings, some TNA candidates are by no means moderate given their abusive language as well as playing on extremist nationalistic sentiments. The more significant point is that if one extends the elections results to Killinochi, one needs to account for the victory of the two councils by the TULF led by Anandasangaree, someone who at great risk to his life challenged the LTTE. The cooperation between the TNA and TULF is reflective of the changing Tamil political landscape in the post-LTTE era.

Next, this election may be better read as an overwhelming protest vote against the Rajapaksa regime, rather than a full endorsement of the TNA. In fact, the TNA is yet to articulate a coherent vision for Tamil politics and a programme to move forward after the war. This is not to belittle the support for the TNA, but rather to point out, that there is much work left in Tamil politics. Furthermore, progressive actors in Tamil society need to challenge and shape Tamil politics around the various fault lines of class, gender, caste and region. There is also the need for soul searching among the EPDP and the other parties that emerged through armed militancy, on their political role moving forward. While some may argue that the EPDP does have a significant base built over the last two decades and might have done better had they contested independently rather than with the UPFA, but that misses the point.

Elections are only one part of the process of rebuilding an alternative Tamil democratic politics. The LTTE’s fascist politics severed Tamil representational politics of any organic links with the people. The decade ahead must produce an alternative Tamil democratic politics, rebuilding and going beyond representational politics, with an emphasis on transforming society. Perhaps it is only the generation that grew up during the war and suffered its consequences in the North and East, weary of the flaws of the previous political generations, which can now lead Tamil politics with a democratic ethos to build bridges with the Muslim, Up-Country Tamil and Sinhala communities towards rebuilding a plural post-war Lanka.

In the months ahead, the issues of development, demilitarization, devolution and democratisation are bound to return to the North, not only because of the continuing international focus on post-war political reconciliation, but also because of the Northern Provincial Council elections. The Rajapaksa regime’s approach to the Tamil community in the North has been one that pokes at the wounds of a devastated people, and for which the people responded in the ballots with dignity. If there is a larger lesson to be learned from the local government elections in the North, it is that there are limits to the political muscle of party machines and patronage. And this indeed is a victory for democracy in the country.


The above article from The Island is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.