Will TNA be affected by EPRLF’s split?

After a long-running wrangling between its main constituent party and the other relatively smaller parties, the main Tamil coalition – the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – seems to have finally split clearly. Suresh Premachandran, the leader of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), one of the constituent parties of the TNA announced on Sunday that his party along with the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) would form a new political front in the north to contest the forthcoming elections under a new symbol.

The TNPF led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam which was also a party associated with the TNA sometimes ago had broken away from the coalition earlier and both Premachandran and Ponnambalam teamed up with Northern Province Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran two years ago to form the Tamil People’s Council (TPC) which Wigneswaran describes as a Tamil National movement and not a political party.

Both factions of the TNA had held two separate meetings on Sunday in Jaffna and Vavuniya. A much publicized meeting of the TPC was held in Jaffna public library under the leadership of Wigneswaran, one of the co-leaders of the TPC where contrasting views were expressed on the current Constitutional reform process in general and the interim report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly in particular apart from the plans for the forthcoming local government elections scheduled to be held in January next year.

The Central Committee of the Ilangai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), the main constituent party of the TNA, meanwhile met at the Vanni Inn Hotel in Vavuniya presided over by the party leader and Parliamentarian Mavai Senadhirajah with the participation of TNA leader R.Sampanthan. Interestingly, the same two issues – the Constitutional reforms and the forthcoming local government elections- were discussed for about eight hours, according to Tamil media.

At the TPC meeting held in Jaffna,Wigneswaran had taken a conciliatory stance towards the TNA/ITAK leadership while calling the Tamil leaders who were over 60 years to step aside and allow the younger generation to take up politics. He argued that the older leaders guide what he described as the “great Tamil political machinery” from behind the scene as the iconic Tamil Nadu leader Kamarajar did. Though leaders of most Tamil political parties are over 60 years, he seems to have addressed the TNA/ITAK leaders, considering the bickering between his faction and the Sampanthan faction of the TNA.

Explaining his TPC’s performance during the past two years the former Supreme Court judge boasted that the TPC had changed the mindset of some political parties from, “we will accept what we are given” to “we will demand what our people want”.It was vividly clear he was referring to the TNA/ ITAK leaders as they had been accused by the hard liners in the north such as Premachandran and Ponnambalam that they were too lenient towards the government in presenting the demands of the Tamil people.

His wordings remind us of a corresponding statement made by TNA leader Sampanthan during a recent interaction with a selected group of journalists at the Opposition Leader’s office in Colombo. Explaining the Constitutional reforms process Sampanthan said “we will press for the fulfillment of the demands of our people, but we do not know whether we would be successful”.

On the announcement by Premachandran and Ponnambalam after the ITAK Central Committee meeting, Sampanthan said that no such decision had been communicated either to the ITAK or to the TNA

However, Wigneswaran was not in favour of breaking up of the main Tamil coalition. He might have explained his organisation’s performance to say that the TNA leadership has reformed and there was no need for any constituent party to leave. Another co-leader of the TPC T. Wasantharajah also subscribed to this point. Tracing back the failures on the part of the Tamil leaders such as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965, he had argued that there may be weaknesses in leaders, but it didn’t justify the historic blunder of discarding of the Tamils’ traditional political party (the ITAK) or the alliance it had formed (the TNA).
Premachandran and Ponnambalam were not convinced. They went ahead with their plan to sever ties with the TNA/ITAK which they announced during the meeting as well as after it speaking to the media. It had to be expected as the EPRLF leader had already stated a few weeks ago that his party would break away from the TNA. EPRLF was one of the original parties that had formed the TNA in 2001 at the instance of the LTTE.

Wigneswaran was not happy about the announcement by Premachandran and Ponnambalam. He told the media that it wouldn’t be prudent on the part of any constituent party to leave the TNA. But after a discussion with them he too seems to have fallen in line or softened his stance towards them. He had later told the media that it was because of the TNA that had gone back against its own pledges to the people that a split had occurred in the party. Uthayan, the Jaffna-based news paper with a wide circulation in the north editorially criticized him for vacillating without taking a firm stance on the unity of the TNA.

The TNA has cautiously evaded the controversy. Responding to a question by the media on the announcement by Premachandran and Ponnambalam after the ITAK Central Committee meeting, Sampanthan said that no such decision had been communicated either to the ITAK or to the TNA. Earlier during the CC meeting also while explaining the current progress of the Constitutional reform process he had pressed for the unity among Tamils at a time which he described as crucial in the process of finding a lasting solution to the ethnic problem. At the same time the TNA/ITAK also seem to be not worried about the decision of the EPRLF as TNA spokesman M.A.Sumanthiran MP who is a close associate of Sampanthan had said that the forthcoming election would be a referendum that would decide whether TNA was correct in handling the Constitutional reforms issue.

The differences between Sampanthan and Wigneswaran are not clear though they were in two factions in the TNA. Contrary to the call by the latter for the Tamil leaders over 60 years to step aside on Sunday, he had rejected a suggestion by the dissidents of the TNA to find an alternative leadership for Tamils a few weeks ago. As if reciprocating to that goodwill gesture Sampanthan at the aforementioned media meet at the Opposition Leader’s office said that Tamils would not find a Chief Minister of Wigneswarn’s calibre.
After the TPC meeting in Jaffna on Sunday Wigneswaran told media “let the government give the Tamils what it wished, but the TNA leadership must tell the government that we wouldn’t deviate from our basic policy”. And Sampanthan says “we will press for the fulfilment of the demands of our people, but we do not know whether we would be successful”.

However, the differences between ITAK and the EPRLF are much deeper. They originated with the demand by the smaller parties in the TNA to register the alliance as separate political party with the Election Commission. The TNA which had agreed to the demand earlier had later started to drag its feet. Policy issues came to the fore later with EPRLF taking a relatively extreme line in order to attract the people. Wigneswaran who was embarrassed by the former regime by rejecting even his simple requests such as appointing a civilian governor and transferring a provincial chief secretary compelled him to team up with the more extreme group.

However, now the situation has come to a head and the EPRLF has left the coalition after about sixteen years. Yet, it is too early to decide whether the severance of links with the TNA by the EPRLF would affect electoral fortunes of the alliance, going by the performances of northern small parties at the past elections. (Daily Mirror)

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