TNA captures Jaffna Mayoralty through skilful political manoeuvre

TNA captures Jaffna Mayoralty through skillful political manoeuvre

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj



Recently concluded elections to local authorities in February saw the municipal elections in Jaffna assuming great political significance.

Sumanthiran suggested that each entity, which came first in a particular local body be allowed to elect the Mayor or Chairperson and form the administration in a spirit of mutual respect

As is usual in contemporary Tamil politics there was a hitch in the form of a nay-sayer.

Jaffna is the capital city of the predominantly Tamil speaking Northern Province of Sri Lanka. It was at the time of independence from Britain, the second largest city in the Island, next only to Colombo.

Jaffna gradually declined in the post-independence years, dropping to fourth place at the 1981 census. Thereafter with the escalation of the ethnic conflict, Jaffna along with many other places in the Northern and Eastern Provinces got drastically affected by the war.

Disruption of the economy and mass migration saw Jaffna drop to 14th place when an Islandwide census was taken in 2012.

In fact, there are more Sri Lankan Tamils living in Colombo, London and Toronto than in Jaffna now. Nevertheless, Jaffna -known as Yaarlpaanam in Tamil and Yahapanaya in Sinhala- continues to retain its glory as the cultural capital of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

In that context, the recently concluded elections to local authorities in February saw the municipal elections in Jaffna assuming great political significance.

Winning the Jaffna municipal poll and electing its candidate as Mayor became a prestigious political party battle. Seven political parties or groupings were in the race for the Jaffna Municipal stakes comprising 45 seats (27 wards and 18 PR.)

The contenders were the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) contesting under the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) symbol of the house. The TNA comprises the ITAK, PLOTE and TELO; the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) contesting under the Ahila Ilangai Tamil Congress (AITC) symbol of cycle; the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) contesting under the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) symbol of sun along with the TULF; the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP); the United National Party (UNP); the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP).

There were 56, 245 registered electors of whom 40,916 voted at the polls. With 586 votes being rejected, 40,330 votes were counted as valid. The ITAK polled the highest 14,424 (35.76%) and were entitled to 16 seats. The AITC coming next polled 12,020 (29.08%) and obtained 13 seats.

The EPDP came third polling 8,671 (21.05%) and getting 10 seats. The UNP garnering 2,423 (6.01%) had three seats. The SLFP with 1,479 (3.67%) got two seats. The TULF got one seat polling 1,071(2.66%). The JVP having only 242 (0.6%) votes did not get any seats.

With the fragmentation of seats among the different political parties, the end result was that of a hung council in Jaffna.


Arnold too modelled himself on Senathirajah, known as Maavai and adopted the ITAK leader’s way of public speaking thus earning the sobriquet Sinna Maavai or Little Maavai.


This situation, however, was not in Jaffna alone but also prevalent in a very large number of local authorities all over the Island. This was mainly due to the new voting system, which was reportedly a mixture of the First Past the Post (FPP) winner mode and the Proportionate Representation (PR) method.

As a result in many instances, the situation was one where the party that came first found itself outnumbered by the other parties and being unable to form a viable administration in spite of gaining more votes and winning more directly contested wards.

The “overhanging” factor was the cause in most cases. The TNA consisting of the ITAK, PLOTE and TELO suffered greatly as a result of this syndrome. The TNA had contested 55 local authorities in the North and East. Of these 48 were Tamil majority local bodies. The TNA came first in 40 of these local authorities. However, the TNA found itself unable to form a viable administration in over 30 of these bodies including the prestigious Jaffna Municipality.

Vaazhu, Vaazhavidu (Live and Let Live)

The TNA leadership after internal discussions devised a Vaazhu, Vaazhavidu (Live and Let Live) policy to resolve this deadlock. It was left to the TNA and ITAK spokesperson Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran, MP to express this formula publicly.

Pointing out that parties and independent groups other than the TNA had also come first with the most number of seats in some urban councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas and were facing a ‘hung’ situation,
Sumanthiran suggested that each entity, which came first in a particular local body be allowed to elect the Mayor or Chairperson and form the administration in a spirit of mutual respect and tolerance without hindrance from the other parties.

While acknowledging the fact that this policy, if accepted by all concerned, would help the TNA immensely in being able to form the administration in over 30 bodies including Jaffna, Sumanthiran also pointed out that it would also help the parties in a leading position in other local authorities.
The Jaffna District TNA Parliamentarian said that others like the EPDP and AITC in Jaffna, an independent group in Kilinochchi, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalaip Puligal (TMVP) in Batticaloa would also benefit from such an arrangement.

“We will take over in the councils and Sabhas/Sabais where we came first, you all take over in councils and Sabhas/Sabhais where you came first. We will support you without blocking you or trying to undermine you. You support us without trying to obstruct or undercut us. Let us all run efficient local administrations and serve the people who elected us” was the message. This was strongly endorsed by ITAK President and veteran Jaffna MP Somasundaram ‘Maavai’ Senathirajah.

The ideas propounded by the TNA/ITAK resonated well with the people at large. After all the voters who elected their representatives would like to taste the fruits of their franchise rather than languish indefinitely in a state of uncertainty.

But as is usual in contemporary Tamil politics there was a hitch in the form of a nay-sayer. This was none other than the Nawab of Negativity Gajendrakumar Gangaesar Ponnambalam popularly known as Gajen Ponnambalam.

Despite his educational qualifications and political pedigree, the leader of the AITC/TNPF has never been known for pragmatism or flexibility in politics.

Besides his party that had been virtually written off at the 2015 Parliamentary poll had made a commendable comeback by performing well at the 2018 local polls. Gajen Ponnambalam regarded as the Darling of the Tamil Diaspora Hardliners was cock-a-hoop after the local polls.

So, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, who had perhaps overestimated his political clout, rejected the olive branch held out by the TNA.

Not only would the AITC/TNPF form the administration in the Point Pedro and Chavakachcheri Urban Councils where his party had come first, but he would also capture power in some local bodies, where the TNA had come first, said Ponnambalam.

Tamil media reports stated that Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam had specifically referred to the Jaffna Municipal Council, the Valvettithurai Urban Council, the Vadamaratchy South -West and Nallur Pradeshiya Sabhas in this respect.

The AITC/TNPF leader seemed very optimistic in his being able to ascend the Jaffna Municipal throne despite the TNA being in the lead there.

It soon became apparent that Gajen Ponnambalam had set his sights on Jaffna and was seemingly sure of gaining control there in spite of his party having only 13 of 45 seats in the council.

On the one hand, there was a personal element in this mindset as Gajen’s grandfather GG Ponnambalam Snr had been the Jaffna MP from 1947 to 1960 and 1965 to 1970.

The Tamil Congress had been a force to be reckoned with in the politics of Jaffna town for decades. This, however, had changed with the advent of Gajen’s father GG Ponnambalam Jnr. known generally as Kumar Ponnambalam. When Kumar Ponnambalam contested Jaffna in the 1977 Parliamentary poll as an independent under the tree symbol, he had lost badly to Vettivelu Yogeswaran of the TULF. After Kumar Ponnambalam took over the party, the Tamil Congress had fared poorly in the Jaffna Municipal poll of 1979 too.

Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam’s Grandiose Expectations

Apart from this Gajen Ponnambalam was confident of winning the Mayoral contest in Jaffna due to another reason too. As he himself boasted to supporters and well-wishers, Gajen expected a large number of municipal councillors from both the TNA and the EPDP to vote against the official TNA Mayoral candidate Emmanuel Arnold.

Ponnambalam was sure that several MMCs from these two parties would vote for the TNPF nominee Visuvalingam Manivannan.

He also demanded that the voting should be by secret ballot to facilitate this potential cross-party voting. In order to understand why Gajendrakumar Ponnamblam had such grandiose expectations, it is importantly necessary to delve briefly into the political environment that prevailed in Jaffna before the local authority poll of February 10, 2018.

When the local authority elections loomed large on the political horizon last year, there were internal convulsions within the Tamil National Alliance, which is the premier political configuration of the Sri Lankan Tamils. One of the TNA constituents the EPRLF charged the ITAK of dominating the TNA and pulled out of the grouping.

The remaining PLOTE and TELO also engaged in some squabbling with the ITAK, which is the largest and key constituent of the TNA.

After some bickering and grandstanding, the ITAK, PLOTE and TELO agreed upon a formula to contest local polls.

There were 48 local authorities with a clear Tamil majority in the North and East. It was decided that the ITAK would be given pride of place in 32 while the TELO and PLOTE would get 12 and 4 respectively.

According to this arrangement, the Mayor/Chairperson positions and 60% of candidates would be given to one party while the Deputy -Mayor/Deputy Chairman Posts and 20 % of candidates would be given to each of the other two parties. TNA candidates were selected and confirmed on these lines.
The Jaffna Municipal Council was the jewel in the crown for the TNA. Candidates were selected on the sharing formula agreed upon. The ITAK picked Emmanuel Arnold as its Mayoral candidate. The TELO selected Thurairasa Eesan as its nominee for Deputy Mayor.

Emmanuel Arnold hailing from Paashaiyoor in Jaffna is an old student of St. John’s’ College Jaffna. He graduated from the Jaffna University with a BA degree specializing in economics.

Arnold is a devout Catholic and does not belong to the Protestant Christian Arnold families of Jaffna.
Actually, his father’s name is Emmanuel but instead of going by that surname the son prefers being called Emmanuel Arnold. After graduating, Emmanuel Arnold joined Janashakthi Insurance and rose up from the ranks to become Regional Sales Manager for the North.

Arnold was a politically active youth with a social conscience. He had excelled in sports particularly soccer as a student. It is said that he may have played soccer at a national level but for the ethnic conflict, which devoured the youthful days of many Tamils including Arnold.

He was very popular as an undergrad and was president of the Jaffna University Students Union.
Arnold who is a powerful orator organized many student protests and demonstrations at the Jaffna Varsity during his undergraduate days. He was once photographed giving a clenched fist salute at a political event and detained at Boosa as an LTTE suspect. He was cleared of all suspicion after being interrogated intermittently for six months and released with a clean sheet.

Sobriquet “Sinna Maavai” Or Little Maavai

Arnold, who is married with children, involved himself with the youth wing of the ITAK after the war ended in 2009.

Maavai Senathirajah, who was the General-Secretary of the ITAK, took a liking to the energetic and enterprising young man with a pleasant countenance and an amiable disposition.

Arnold too modelled himself on Senathirajah, known as Maavai and adopted the ITAK leader’s way of public speaking thus earning the sobriquet Sinna Maavai or Little Maavai.

Sinna Maavai Arnold was picked as an ITAK candidate by Maavai Senathirajah for the first ever Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections in 2013. Arnold, polling 26,888 got the sixth highest number of preference votes on the TNA list. The five, who polled higher than Arnold were CV Wigneswaran, Ananthy Sasitharan, Dharmalingam Siddharthan, P. Ariyaratnam and B. Gajatheeban. After the NPC started functioning Arnold was deputed to assist Provincial Education Minister T. Kurukularajah, who delegated sports and youth affairs to the young man from Paashaiyoor.

Being a keen sportsman himself Arnold took up his unofficial duties diligently and re-vitalised sports and athletics in schools.

He also organized several tournaments for youths in the North in general and Jaffna in particular. Arnold became quite popular among youths and students as a result of this.

Meanwhile, Lawyer M. A. Sumanthiran who was appointed National List MP by the TNA in 2010 was assigned the task of identifying and cultivating a younger set of potential leaders within the NPC by TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and deputy leader Maavai Senathirajah.

Sumanthiran picked a few NPC councillors and began working politically with them. Chief among these was a trio, comprising members of the Hindu, Christian and Islamic faiths respectively.

They were Kesavan Sayanthan (Hindu), Emmanuel Arnold (Christian) and Ayub Asmin (Muslim).
Subsequently, Sumanthiran himself contested in Jaffna during the 2015 Parliamentary poll. A vicious campaign financed by LTTE and pro-LTTE elements in the Diaspora was launched against Sumanthiran within and outside TNA folds.

The Sayanthan-Arnold – Asmin trinity was greatly instrumental in leading the election campaign on behalf of Sumanthiran, who won comfortably in 2015 while his open and furtive adversaries lost very badly.


The Sayanthan-Arnold – Asmin trinity was greatly instrumental in leading the election campaign on behalf of Sumanthiran, who won comfortably in 2015…

There was an open revolt in 2017 within TNA councillors in the NPC against Chief Minister Wigneswaran who was accused of political double -games by his detractors who formulated a No-Confidence Motion against the ex-judge.

The ensuing hullabaloo culminated with the exit of Education Minister Kurukularajah. Acting on the outgoing Provincial Minister’s recommendation the ITAK nominated Emmanuel Arnold to be Education Minister.

But C.V. Wigneswaran, who had his own agenda appointed Ananthy Sasitharan instead.

It was believed then that Wigneswaran was hostile towards Arnold because the latter had played a key role in the attempt to oust the controversial Chief Minister.

Triple S – Sampanthan, Senathirajah and Sumanthiran

When elections to local authorities became imminent the ‘Triple S’ of the ITAK, namely Sampanthan, Senathirajah and Sumanthiran, finalised the selection of candidates for the polls.

Emmanuel Arnold though a Provincial Councillor was picked as the Mayoral candidate for Jaffna. Arnold resigned his Northern Provincial Councillor post on December 14th, 2017.

It was obvious that he was doing so because he hoped to become the Jaffna Mayor. This, however, was not to the liking of many within the TNA as well as outside it.

One of the main reasons for this antipathy towards Arnold was the perception among anti- Sumanthiran elements that the prospective Mayoral candidate was a protege’ of Sumanthiran.
It was felt that Arnold becoming Mayor would strengthen Sumanthiran further politically.

There were other reasons too. One of the positive points of the long Tamil struggle for equality has been its secular nature. This enabled a large number of Christians to find common cause with their Hindu brethren in the quest for Tamil emancipation.

It was this ethos of secular nationalism which made possible a Protestant Christian like Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvananayagam to remain the acknowledged leader of pre-dominantly Hindu Tamils for decades until his death. Even the armed militant organizations were essentially secular in composition and outlook. All this, however, has been slowly changing in recent times after the war ended in 2009.

A process of creeping soft Hindutva is beginning to emerge among Sri Lankan Tamils.

It is suspected that it is being ideologically inspired and financially backed up by elements connected to the Hindu Ultra-right wing Parivar (family) in India.

Fortunately, it is yet to take root in Sri Lanka but covert attempts are going on.

One such manifestation has been the phenomenon of leaflets and posters urging Hindus not to patronise non-Hindu businesses or vote for non-Hindus. Obviously, the targets are Muslim businessmen and Christian politicians.

So, when Arnold was tipped to be the Mayoral candidate such anti-Christian, pro- Hindu sentiments were mella, mella (slowly, slowly) propagated in Jaffna.

One of those in the forefront of the anti-Arnold camp was a prominent member of the Northern Provincial Council.

This self-styled scholar of Saivaite wisdom is like Northern Chief Minister Wigneswaran, a disciple of ‘Swami Premananda.’ Premananda was convicted of rape and murder by an Indian court in 1997.

This person kept ranting and raving that a Christian from a particular caste could not become the Mayor of Jaffna, which was a Siva Bhoomi (Lord Shiva’s ground).

If this gentleman seemingly steeped in Saivaite wisdom objected to Arnold on a caste and religious basis another line of the opposition took a different approach.

Ex-Parliamentarian Solomon Cyril for Mayor

A Parliamentarian elected from the Jaffna District proposed the name of ex -Parliamentarian Solomon Cyril as Mayor instead of Emmanuel Arnold.

Both Cyril and Arnold were Catholics and shared a common socio-cultural heritage. But Cyril, who was involved in trade union activity earlier had been made an MP by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) when the LTTE was ruling the roost in the north and exerting great control over the TNA.

So, the argument in favour of Cyril was that he had been a personal favourite of LTTE Supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran and therefore was more suitable than Arnold to be Mayor.

The Jaffna MP in question was against Arnold because of the latter’s perceived links to Sumanthiran. Not that he loved Arnold less but he hated Sumanthiran more!

All these happenings resulted in the extra -careful Senathirajah soft-pedalling the issue for a while.
Senathirajah hailing from Chelvanayagam’s Kankesanthurai constituency is an avowed secularist and federalist.

Although a firebrand in his youthful days septuagenarian Senathirajah has mellowed with age and experience.

So he is quite cautious in politics nowadays. Due to this cautious approach, Senathirajah was delaying the official announcement about Arnold being the Mayoral candidate.

At least three events scheduled to officially announce the candidature of Arnold were postponed. This diminished Arnold’s chances of victory and strengthened the hands of his opponents. It was at this point that Sumanthiran who was the accredited TNA spokesperson jumped the long-delayed gun and formally announced Emmanuel Arnold as the Jaffna Mayoral candidate. This caused quite a lot of excitement and further reinforced the belief that Arnold was a protege’ of Sumanthiran. The announcement, however, removed all doubts and settled the ‘Mayor Matter’ once and for all.
The election campaign got underway and polls were held on February 10.

The results as stated earlier brought about a ‘hung’ Municipal Council.

The TNA came first with 16 out of 45 seats but was unable to get Arnold elected as Mayor.
Among many reasons attributed to the TNA’s – not up to the mark – performance in the Jaffna municipal poll was the suspicion of sabotage.

One example being the wards from a particular locality assigned for election work to the NPC member, who opposed Arnold on religious grounds.

Out of nine wards assigned to this individual, the TNA lost in six. Was it a mere coincidence or was there more to it than which meets the eye?

It was against this backdrop therefore that the TNPF was gloating of certain victory at the Mayoral election and demanding secret voting. It was believed or suspected that the anti-Arnold elements within the TNA would persuade at least ten TNA municipal councillors to vote for the Hindu candidate from the TNPF/AITC as opposed to the TNA’s Emmanuel Arnold. Interestingly the third candidate in the fray Mudiappu Remedius from the EPDP was also like Arnold -a Catholic from Paashaiyoor.

Realising that the challenge to Arnold should not be taken lightly, the TNA leadership took two important steps.

The first was to impress upon all elected TNA councilors that party discipline was important and that the official nominee should be supported at all cost. They were warned that any breach of discipline in the form of cross-party voting would be sternly dealt with resulting in loss of council membership.

Maavai Senathirajah Telephoned Douglas Devananda

The second step was to renew TNA efforts to win over the other political parties to practise the policy of letting each party that came first in a council or Pradeshiya Sabha to be the head of each body and form an administration.

So, the Jaffna traders association was asked to talk to the TNPF/Tamil Congress again. The TNA also approached the EPDP. A TELO delegation led by Mannar MP Selvam Adaikkalanathan met EPDP Secretary-General Douglas Devananda in Colombo.

This was followed up by ITAK President Maavai Senathirajah who telephoned Devananda and re-iterated that each party be allowed to form an administration in the local body it had come first in.
TNA spokesperson Sumanthiran MP who had already discussed the issue with the EPDP’s designated Mayoral candidate Remedius at an event held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of being called to the bar of veteran lawyer Murugesu Sittampalam (half-brother of TULF leader Murugesu Sivasithamparam) communicated with Remedius again.

While the Tamil Congress/AITC rejected the Live and let live invitation outright the EPDP emitted positive signals while remaining basically non – committal.

D-day was on March 26th, 2018. Forty – four of the forty-five Jaffna Municipal Councillors gathered at the municipal premises. The councillor elected on the TULF ticket had been convicted for an offence under the penal code and was absent.

The Municipal Commissioner M. Patrick Niranjan presided at the election. Visvalingam Manivannan from AITC, Mudiappu Remedius from EPDP and Emmanuel Arnold of the ITAK were the contestants in the fray.

In a symbolic gesture demonstrating that the TNA had closed ranks, it was mayoral aspirant Solomon Cyril who proposed Arnold’s name. Likewise, former EPDP Jaffna mayor Yogeswari Patkunarajah proposed Remedius as a candidate.

An ebulliently confident Manivannan asked for secret voting while Arnold wanted open voting. The decision about mode of voting was put to the vote.

The 16 TNA and three UNP councillors wanted open voting while the 13 AITC, 10 EPDP and two SLFP councillors wanted secret voting.

So secret voting was adopted. When the first round of voting was conducted Arnold came first with 18 votes, while Manivannan and Remedius tied with 13 votes each.

Thereafter the names of Remedius and Manivannan were written on pieces of paper and one slip was picked.

Remedius was lucky and Manivannan exited the contest.

Now it was going to be a straight fight between Arnold and Remedius. The EPDP candidate then asked for a recess of 20 minutes which was granted by Commissioner Patrick Niranjan.

Mudiappu Remedius was then seen conversing animatedly with Manivannan and thereafter was seen to be engaged in a prolonged telephone conversation.

When it was time again to resume voting the lawyer Mudiappu Remedius dropped a bombshell. He stated that he was withdrawing from the Mayoral race and went up to Arnold and shook his hands congratulating him.

There were 48 local authorities with a clear Tamil majority in the North and East. It was decided that the ITAK would be given pride of place in 32 while the TELO and PLOTE would get 12 and 4 respectively.

At this juncture the Tamil congress’s Visuvalingam Manivannan, also a lawyer requested that he be allowed to contest against Arnold because Remedius had withdrawn.

Patrick Niranjan, however, said that the election rules did not permit it. Manivannan, therefore, recorded his protest at the decision. Emmanuel Arnold was then announced to be the Mayor.

The announcement was received enthusiastically by TNA, UNP and even EPDP members applauding loudly. TNA Parliamentarians Senathirajah and Sumanthiran along with some Provincial Councillors were present and congratulated a jubilant Arnold.

The new Mayor then retired to chambers donned the crimson cloak and presided over the next session, in which Thurairasa Eeasan was elected Deputy -Mayor unopposed.

New Mayor Of Jaffna Emmanuel Arnold

A triumphant Emmanuel Arnold then thanked his fellow municipal councillors for electing him, Mayor.
He invited all councillors from the different parties to cooperate with him in making Jaffna a clean city and a green city. He also promised to safeguard the historical and archaeological heritage in Nallur.
Thereafter his worship the new Mayor of Jaffna paid visits to Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and Islamic religious leaders in Jaffna and received their blessings and wishes.

Thus ended the long saga of Jaffna’s Mayoral Election. The TNA has succeeded in capturing the Jaffna mayoralty through deft political manoeuvring and get its nominee Emmanuel Arnold elected as the 24th Mayor of Jaffna. (ENDS)

D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at


DBS Jeyaraj…. March 30th, 2018

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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