The impact of electoral reforms on the Sri Lankan Muslim community

Tuesday, 16 June 2015 00:06 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Bisthan Batcha

“Electoral reforms are not meant to satisfy political parties. They are meant to strengthen people’s representation” – Kusal Perera in ‘20A must have a Referendum’ (

The process of alienation between the two largest communities in Sri Lanka, driven by the hegemonistic aspirations of the upper-caste Tamils, was set in motion in the 1940s with the establishment of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress in 1944 and the Federal Party in 1949.

During the decades that followed, the political ambitions of stakeholders on both sides of this ethnic divide resulted in the creation of space that was quickly filled by those who believed that that which could not be achieved by words, could only be achieved by deeds. These ‘militants’ were provided with all the necessary encouragement, advice, training, arms and financial support by various external forces which had their own agendas regarding the future of Sri Lanka.


The following 30-year period of violence conducted on a scale never before experienced by Sri Lankans ensured that the chasm in Sinhalese-Tamil relations continued to deepen and widen to such an extent that bridging it will always remain an elusive dream.

During this same period of time, the vast majority of Tamil professionals and businesspersons had by choice or circumstances re-located to different Western countries, which readily welcomed the infusion of top-end human capital to their own systems – human capital for which such countries did not have to spend a single cent as investment.

After the total destruction of the Tamil terrorist group in May 2009, the Tamils of Sri Lankan origin in Western countries and their offspring began to exert socio-economic and political pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, aided and abetted once again by external forces. The Tamil diaspora, as it is now referred to, were so well organised in their collective efforts against the Sri Lankan Government that today it is said that the Tamil lobby has the dubious honour of being second only to the Jewish lobby worldwide in terms of efficacy.

Sinhalese-Muslim relations

The Muslim community on the other hand had integrated to a greater degree with the majority community in Sri Lanka over a 1,000-year period. Other than for one aberration in 1915, instigated apparently by some visiting Muslim Traders from India, Sinhalese-Muslim relations have always been more-or-less harmonious.

This was amply borne out by the fact that prior to 1978, many Muslim politicians representing national parties have been elected in pre-dominantly Sinhalese electorates, while Muslim voters readily lent their support to non-Muslim politicians in all electorates. It was definitely not the case of Muslims voting for a candidate merely because he is a Muslim. Unlike the Tamils, the Muslims did not demonstrate a tendency to vote along communal lines.

The new Constitution enacted by the UNP in 1978 did irreparable damage to Sinhalese-Muslim relations, the effects of which are continuing to reverberate even today, primarily due to the introduction of the ‘Preference Vote’.

From a situation where a candidate had to impress upon a cross-section of multi-ethnic voters that the policies of his party are more beneficial to the country at large than that of a rival party, he had to now further convince voters that of all the candidates of his party contesting a specific area, he is the one best suited to represent them. In other words, the candidate had to project himself as being significantly different from the rest of the flock. To use a common marketing term, he had to possess a Unique Selling Proposition (USP), something that gives him a competitive edge over the other candidates.

Consciously or sub-consciously, many candidates began to play the ethnic card and/or the religious card as they directed their efforts and limited (cognitive and financial) resources at the group that constitute over 70% of Voters – the Sinhala Buddhists – in their desperate bid to possess this much-sought after USP. At the end of the day, the cost of marketing themselves to Sinhala Buddhist voters was considerably less than marketing themselves to a target group of multi-ethnic Voters.

Quite naturally, the range of options available to Muslim voters was thereby reduced considerably by this phenomenon. Into this emerging void, stepped in the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in 1986, in the misplaced belief that it could capture these floating Muslim votes. The fact that the progress of the SLMC during its formative years and the growing conservatism among the Muslim community, especially in the Eastern Province – the heartland of the SLMC, were somewhat parallel led many to perceive a causal relationship between the two phenomena. Quite naturally, the years that followed witnessed the birth of many more ‘copy-cat’ Muslim political parties.

The performance of these Muslim political parties since 1989 is summarised below.

1989 general elections

The SLMC won a little over 32% of the estimated number of Muslim votes in 13 districts. The SLMC garnered a little under 50% of the estimated number of Muslim votes in the Eastern Province.

This suggests that even at that time, one in two Muslim adults in the EP did not favour a Muslim political party.

1994 general elections

The SLMC continued to garner a little under 50% of the estimated number of Muslim votes in the Eastern Province.

2004 general elections

The SLMC won about 66% of the estimated number of Muslim votes in the Eastern Province. Does this indicate an increase in popularity or reflect the sympathy votes after Ashraff’s tragic demise in 2000?

2012 Eastern Provincial Council elections

Only an estimated 37% of Muslim voters cast their votes in favour of the SLMC. This would mean that at this point in time around two in every three Muslim Voters in the heartland of the SLMC favoured a National Political Party (UNP/SLFP) or did not cast their votes at a national election.

2014 Western Provincial Council elections

All the Muslim parties that contested collectively accounted for only an estimated 17% of Muslim votes. Five years previously, in 2009, the corresponding level of support was 18%. The number of Muslim voters had increased by nearly 6%, but the SLMC were able to increase their voter base by a mere 127 votes in 2014.

This suggests that even at the height of anti-Muslim agitations, five out of every six Muslim Adults in the Western Province did not deem it fit to vote for a Muslim political party.

2014 Uva Provincial Council elections

The final nail in the coffin was the performance of these Muslim parties at the Uva Provincial Council elections in 2014 for which all the Muslim parties had decided to join forces and contest under one umbrella party for maximum results.

At the end of the day, out of an estimated 40,000 Muslim voters, only 5,045 voted for this grand coalition of Muslim parties. This meant that about seven out of every eight Muslim voters in this region had rejected the Muslim parties at a time when the activities of the anti-Muslim groups were at a peak.

Shift towards truly national political parties

What is clearly evident in the above voting patterns of Muslims is the rejection of Muslim political parties and a burgeoning shift towards truly national political parties. This is only to be expected.

During the period 2012-2014, the anti-Muslim groups had effectively destroyed a basic need of the Muslim community – the need for physical safety (a second-level need according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory). This need was felt by Muslims from all parts of the island.

It was not confined only to Muslims residing in a specific area or region. It was a truly ‘national’ need and one that could only be provided most effectively by a true national political party. Hence the significant shift in preference for such parties.

The voting pattern also highlights the following features:

  • The claim that Muslims vote along communal lines is a canard perpetuated by self-serving politicians.
  • The claim that Muslim political parties ‘represent’ the Muslim community is a fallacy of the highest order.
  • The claim that the Muslim community will benefit from amendments to the electoral system along communal lines is a total misconception on the part of its advocates. Such amendments will only benefit the Muslim political parties.

The perpetuation of these fallacies will only serve to widen and deepen the cracks that have appeared in Sinhalese-Muslim relations during 2012-2014.

As in the pre-1978 era, the Muslims have begun to demonstrate their willingness to cast their votes for candidates who in their opinion will look after the interests of the Muslim community – specifically, the non-violation of the basic need of Muslims for physical safety. The ethnicity and religion of such candidates are of secondary importance to a minority group which constitutes less than 10% of the total population.

It is time for the national parties to once again, as in the pre-1978 period, ensure that there are in their ranks men and women of standing who can, regardless of their race or religion, win the confidence of the Muslim community. The proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution will go a long way towards meeting this need. The responsibility now devolves on the national political parties to ensure that their policies and strategies encompass all Sri Lankans in theory and practice.

Muslims must learn from experiences of Tamil community

The Muslims must learn from the experiences of the Tamil community resulting from the words and actions of their ambitious political leaders. It is estimated that, had the terrible events spanning 30 years of our recent history not occurred, in 2012 the SL Tamils would have accounted for a little over 16% of the total population.

One has to only compare this with the corresponding 2012 Census figure of 11.2% to realise the extent and scope of the ‘Tragedy of the Sri Lankan Tamils’. Is it the desire of the Muslim community to travel along a similar path? A journey which may result in quantitative and qualitative losses to the shape and size of their community?

It therefore behoves the Sri Lankan Muslims to demonstrate without any ambiguity their support for the restoration of the maximum possible number of seats under the First-Pass-The-Post system in any future electoral reform.

We should not be misled or blinded by the actions of various self-styled ‘Muslim civil society’ groups and organisations purportedly acting on behalf of our community with regard to such reforms. Many of these groups have been hijacked by the Muslim political parties who see the proposed electoral reforms as a vehicle to ensure their maximum representation in future Parliaments.

Have we already forgotten the post-Aluthgama behaviour of these Muslim political parties? As George Santayana, the Philosopher, once observed: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”