A striking feature of the First-Pass-The-Post (FPTP) system of electing Members of Parliament, that existed until the introduction of the new Constitution in 1978, was the election of Muslim MP’s from predominantly Non-Muslim Electorates and the ready support extended to Non-Muslim Candidates by Muslim Voters in all electorates. Muslims voted for Candidates, irrespective of race or religion, who won their confidence of being able to safeguard and protect the interests of their Community inside and outside the Legislature. Muslims voted with their heads in the belief that ‘What is good for the Country, is good for me’.
Then came the Proportional Representation (PR) system which compelled many would-be MP’s to adopt a partial attitude towards the Majority Community in their desperate bid to attract and hold Preference votes. The National Parties abdicated their responsibilities to the Muslim Community leaving the Muslims with the feeling that their interests would be best looked after by Muslim Candidates. Into this breach stepped the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), which was formed in September 1981 and formally inaugurated as a political party in November 1986. This was a defining moment in Buddhist – Muslim relations. Circumstances were pushing the Muslim Community towards supporting candidates from Muslim Political Parties which subsequently mushroomed. This was definitely not an inherent, dormant need of Muslims in Sri Lanka.
In it’s initial appearance at a General Election in 1989, the SLMC, which was then the only Muslim Political Party, contested for the first and last time in 13 electoral districts under it’s own brand name. It won the support of just a little over 32% of the estimated number of Muslim Voters in these 13 districts. In it’s heartland, comprising the three districts of the Eastern Province, it garnered a little under 50% of the estimated number of Muslim Votes. Five years later, at the 1994 General Elections, the popularity of the SLMC in the Eastern Province remained more-or-less the same. However, 10 years on, the SLMC reached the zenith of it’s popularity in the Eastern Province by attracting the support of around two-thirds of the estimated number of Muslim Voters in that region at the 2004 General Elections. The decline set in thereafter. The results of the Provincial Council elections conducted in the Eastern Province in 2012 revealed that only an estimated 37% of Muslim Voters had cast their votes in favour of the SLMC. This would mean that at this point in time around 2 in every 3 Muslim Voters in the heartland of the SLMC would either favor a non-Muslim Political Party or would not cast their votes at a National Election.
An examination of the combined performance of the Muslim Parties (not just the SLMC) in 2014 – at the height of the anti-Muslim agitations when the Muslim Community felt most vulnerable – throws into focus the perceptions of Muslims regarding these Muslim Political Parties. At the Western Provincial Council Elections in 2009 and in 2014, the estimated share of Muslim Votes garnered by all Muslim Parties decreased from 18% to 17%. This suggests that even at a time of great personal danger, 5 out of every 6 Muslim Adults in the Western Province did not deem it fit to vote for a Muslim Political Party. 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 5045 voted for this grand coalition of Muslim Parties. This meant that about 7 out of every 8 Muslim Voter in this region had rejected the Muslim Parties at a time when the activities of the anti-Muslim groups were at a peak.
Under these circumstances, how correct is it for these Muslim Political Parties to claim that they ‘represent’ the interests of the Muslim Community?
Why are they adding their voice to the demand that the interests of the various ‘Minority Groups’ (which includes the Muslim Community) be safe-guarded in the proposed Electoral Reforms, when the vast majority of Muslims do not perceive these Muslim Political Parties as their ‘political guardians’ ?
In doing so, are the Muslim Political Parties only attempting to ensure that they will be guaranteed of a specified number of seats in any future Parliament without expending too much political energy ?
With declining numbers of Muslims voting for such Muslim Parties, will this result in low-grade politicians being elected to Parliament on the Muslim ticket ?
The above analysis of voting patterns also gives lie to the popular belief that Muslims vote only for Muslim Candidates at National Elections. Ask any member of the Majority Community and he or she will promptly declare that this is true. Such thinking only serves to justify their decision to vote for candidates from their own Community. The perpetuation of this fallacy has benefited all Political Parties. The Muslim Political Parties have used it and are continuing to use it to boost their own flagging image nationally and internationally. The National Political Parties, specifically the UNP and the SLFP, are happy to accept this position so that their candidates are at liberty to bring the full force of their limited resources to bear on the non-Muslim voting Public – which is so essential to maximize their Preference votes.
The net result of all these phenomena is that the schism between the members of the Majority Community and the members of the Muslim Community continues to deepen and widen, sharpening further the ‘Us vs Them’ syndrome.
The Muslims have and will always vote 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 do not matter 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.
Have the voting patterns of the Muslim Community to date indicated a felt need among the Sri Lankan Muslims for Electoral Reforms ?