Why does TNA and Welgama’s faction support Sajith? | Sunday Observer

Why does TNA and Welgama’s faction support Sajith?

This week, two major political forces in the country, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and a faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) announced their stance on the upcoming presidential election. Perhaps for different reasons, they both have decided to support the National Democratic Front (NDF) candidate, Sajith Premadasa. The rest of the country should ask why these groups arrived at that decision.

The TNA has decided to support Candidate Premadasa after having discussions with the NDF, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). It has said that Premadasa’s commitment to a ‘democratic space’ would allow it to pursue its political journey.

There was a time during the campaign when the SLPP was wooing the TNA and was making statements that would appease that party. However, with the TNA announcing its support for Premadasa, the SLPP has now changed its tune. It accuses Premadasa of being a ‘traitor’ and having a secret pact with the TNA.

Prior to these statements, there was a list of thirteen demands put forward by a student organisation in the North in circulation. These demands, which included federalism and the merger of the North and East. Neither Premadasa nor Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the SLPP candidate responded to these demands.

The TNA has repeatedly clarified that its support was unconditional and not based on any of these demands being met. However, the SLPP fear mongers, led by their chauvinist foul mouths of the calibre of Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila, are trying to create a fear psychosis in the South claiming that a vote for Premadasa is a vote for a divided country.

Deplorable? Yes. Surprising? No. This is familiar territory to those in the SLPP. In 2015, after Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election, we saw him cling to a window at his ancestral home in Medamulana and display a map of the electoral districts won by President Sirisena and compare it to a map of the proposed Tamil Eelam. The prophesy at the time was that President Sirisena’s victory would pave the way for Eelam. Now, they are doing it all over again.

Given such a track record, it is not surprising that the TNA decided to support Premadasa. The SLPP’s political strategy at this election has been to take a strong anti-minority stance in the hope that it can propagate the message of ‘saving the Sinhala race’ and thereby record significant majorities in the South of the country, that would offset any losses in the North and East and the major urban centres.

This was very much in evidence when SLPP campaigners tried to malign Minister Rauf Hakeem for meeting with the mastermind of the Easter attacks, Zaharan Hashim in 2015, when the latter was not a person of interest to the authorities. There was a concerted attempt by the SLPP to portray a vote for Premadasa as vote for Islamic terrorism.

Such strategies, of course, polarise the electorate on communal lines and would not promote harmony among the various ethnic groups. Still, such lofty ideals can be sacrificed when there is an election to be won, is what the SLPP seems to think.

Premadasa, and the party he represents in the NDF, the United National Party (UNP) has always stood for communal harmony and its policies reflect this. Several of its chairmen, including current Chairman Kabir Hashim have been from minority communities. Little wonder then, that the TNA opted to support Premadasa!

On the other side of the political divide, a dissident faction of the SLFP, styling itself ‘Api Sri Lanka” or ‘We are Sri Lanka’, also pledged their support to Premadasa. That event was attended by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former SLPP stalwart Kumara Welgama who has consistently opposed the candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Speaking on the occasion, Kumaratunga was candid as usual and made the point that support for the SLPP would sound the death knell for the SLFP, the party founded by her father and the party which has held power in the country for the longest period of time.

Former Minister Welgama’s stance is perhaps worth reflecting on more deeply. Welgama was not among those - such as Dayasiri Jayasekara and S.B. Dissanayake - who opposed President Maithripala Sirisena before the 2015 presidential election but joined his government thereafter. He stood with the Rajapaksa camp and was a key member of the Joint Opposition (JO) when it was formed.

However, he distanced himself from the Rajapaksas when it was first rumoured that Gotabaya Rajapaksa may become the candidate, a position he has maintained until now. Welgama’s opposition to the younger Rajapaksa- while still maintaining his loyalty to Mahinda Rajapaksa- was based on the fact that it promoted nepotism and also on Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s track record as a ruthless administrator whose commitment to democratic freedoms was questionable.

At the event launching ‘Api Sri Lanka’, Welgama categorically said that he would not be voting for Gotabaya Rajapaksa and added, “I can’t directly tell you whom to vote for but you know who you should vote for!”

Kumaratunga opposing the Rajapaksas is nothing new. Their rivalry goes back decades. What is more interesting is Welgama’s opposition to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A loyal SLFPer for almost fifty years, Welgama was also a staunch supporter of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

However, he sees the SLPP for what it is - a party which is designed to perpetuate the Rajapaksa dynasty - and realises that it will one day aim to create a one family, one party state if it had someone like Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the helm.

In this election campaign, there was a time when the choice was difficult - despite having thirty-five candidates in the fray. Now that the battlelines have been more clearly demarcated, the differences between the candidates are coming into sharper focus.

With less than a week to go for the poll, voters need not necessarily vote with what the TNA or the dissident faction of the SLFP have decided but, before making up their own minds about their vote, they must certainly think about why those groups decided in the way they did.