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Tamils voting in large numbers could tilt the balance

world Updated: Jan 24, 2010 21:44 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

During their campaign both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and retired army general Sarath Fonseka made a point to pay their obeisance to the Hindu God of War Kandasaamy at the ancient Nallur temple in Jaffna, the seat of Tamil culture and identity in Sri Lanka.

Total population of Sri Lanka – More than 20 million

Total electorate – 14 million (according to 2008 electoral rolls)

Total percentage of Tamils in Sri Lanka – 12 per cent to 13 per cent

Total number of Tamil voters – There are is no precise statistic.

It is estimated that approximately 10 per cent of the electorate (approximately 1.4 million) are Tamil voters after accounting for the number of Tamils who have left the country.

The symbolism is hard to miss. Rajapaksa, 65, and Fonseka, 60, know the importance of the Tamil vote in the bitterly fought high-stakes Presidential battle on Tuesday. They are expected to split the majority Sinhala community vote right through the middle; what might then count are the eligible voters in the 12 per cent to 13 per cent Tamil community in an electorate of a little more than 14 million; a prayer at the largest Hindu temple in the country could hardly harm the cause.

In the 2005 Presidential poll when Rajapaksa was pitted against United National Party’s Ranil Wickeremsinghe, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ordered the community to boycott voting. They did. It is widely believed that had Tamils voted, Rajapaksa would have lost the election, which he won by less than 2 per cent margin.

This time, the LTTE are not there. But on the surface, the Tamil voters seem divided.

The four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is stacked behind Fonseka as is the Democratic People’s Front. Rajapaksa has the support of Tamil political parties like the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), the People’s Liberation Organisation for Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the TMVP.

``On the face of it, in the post-LTTE phase the Tamil community is not looking for a long-term solution to the ethnic issue. They seem to going for pragmatic political alliances for immediate gains,’’ a political analyst, who did not wish to be named, said.

Eminent Tamil historian, S Pathmannathan said the Tamil community wants the general problems of every day life, like high cost of living and corruption, to be resolved. ``Then for the Tamils displaced in the north, there are the issues of resettlement and rehabilitation. They also want that any government they choose, the voices of their representatives should be heard,’’ Pathmanathan said.

The Tamil voter also knows that their choices are limited. They have little else to choose from besides Rajapaksa and Fonseka, both of who claim credit for the military defeat of the LTTE. The community is also skeptical of being courted by the two main contenders; little more than a year ago, Fonseka had said that minorities should not make demands.

"Having bombed and shelled us, and restricted the Tamil community's movements for years, they are now asking us to vote for them," social worker K. Radhakrishnan told AFP in Jaffna. The community also knows that neither Fonseka nor Rajapaksa have promised to address their demands of greater regional autonomy.

``With the LTTE factor removed, the Tamils would want the government in Colombo to listen to them. Other than the LTTE, most Tamil parties had dropped the idea of a separate state. They would want the new President to listen to their need of a greater regional autonomy,’’ an academic said.

If allowed to vote freely, the Tamils are expected to vote in large numbers. Because of the refugees’ problem in the north, there is apprehension that many Tamils might not vote.

For Fonseka, what might work is the endorsement of the TNA, which has 22 members in Parliament. Last week, the TNA announced in parliament that they were asking their community to vote for Fonseka. It’s leader R Sampanthan told Sunday Times: ``Our decision to back Fonseka was more than anything based on our understanding that there is a need to defeat Rajapaksa…(who) wants to win the election but not the mandate of the Tamil-speaking people.’’

Ultimately, it’s the people and not prayers that make Presidents.