Sri Lanka: Government uses war to steam-roller victory in provincial elections

Opposition trounced but United Socialist Party still biggest left force

President Mahinda Rajapakse and the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government of Sri Lanka used the two provincial elections held on 27 August as a referendum on the 25-year-long war in the country. They alleged that if the opposition parties won these elections and came into power nationally they would stop pursuing the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who, they said, must be defeated. They appealed to the Sinhala people using communal, anti-Tamil language and cut across anti-government feelings that had begun to develop amongst workers and poor in the area. Just before the election, the government created a picture, using the media, that the Sri Lankan armed forces had almost captured the stronghold of the LTTE in Killinochchi.

They said people who vote for the opposition parties are anti-patriotic people and direct supporters of the LTTE. The main capitalist opposition party, the United National Party, instead of countering these arguments and reiterating their opposition to the war, opportunistically put forward a retired General in the north central province and, in the other central area, fielded the most popular film star in Sri Lanka, ignoring local party faithfuls. The UNP is said to be a ship without a rudder and, on the basis of the votes cast, would lose all 23 parliamentary seats. Only the preference votes saved their position in the provincial councils up for election.

The results showed 307, 457 votes for the ruling UPFA in North Central Province compared with 205,284 for the UNP and 472,789 in Sabaragamuwa province compared with 346,321 for the UNP.

Neither the UNP nor the government ever addressed the real problems of the people. The masses were intimidated. Violence was used extensively in the election with attacks on candidates and the burning down of election offices. The UPFA’s round the clock campaign also made (illegal) widespread use of government property – vehicles, state media (giving round the clock support), public money and other resources to ‘buy’ votes. In this way they won elections.

The Sinhala chauvinist People’s Liberation Front (JVP) had been a coalition partner of the UPFA government since they came to power in 2004. Having decided to contest independently in this election, they suffered the most losses of any party. They had 18 members on these two councils and now have just three.

Even the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC, Thondaman’s party) claiming to represent Tamil plantation workers – which has had one seat in the Ratnapura district from the time the Provincial Council came into being, has lost that seat. Most of the poor Tamil tea plantation workers in Sabaragamuwa did not go to the polls at all. Unfortunately some of them even voted for the parties of this murderous communalist government, hoping to secure their safety from Sinhala communal forces. They fear that, if the army captures Killinochchi, they as Tamils working in these isolated areas, they will come under physical attack from the Sinhala villagers. Tamil families in these areas are living on the Tea estates surrounded by Sinhala majority villagers, unlike in the central Hill Country, where the Tamil-speaking people form the majority.

Normally a government’s popularity will go down after a few years in power, especially if, like the Rajapakse government, it has allowed the lives of working and poor people to be devastated by war and rocketing prices on basic food and fuel. The United Socialist Party (CWI in Sri Lanka) contested both provinces with a clear socialist alternative – a programme for ending the war, fighting for wage rises to meet inflation and for an end to attacks on press freedom. We knew about the rising communal situation in general and that support for the Sinhala communal war had spread throughout the country, but had not seen until the election to what extent the domineering Sinhala Buddhist communal ideology had got a hold among the people. After three years in power this government is still popular only because of its propaganda about being just about to win the war. People want it over and done with.

Nevertheless the USP can be proud of its achievements in this election. We have managed to maintain our position as the main left party in Sri Lanka, coming fifth and sixth in most constituencies out of 20 odd parties on the lists. All our opponents on the left were united in one unprincipled alliance under the Left Front, The Left Front has been virtually wiped out. In some constituencies they received no votes.

Below is just a comparison of how the USP, standing alone, polled in these elections compared with the Left Front, gathering many diverse groups and parties together.

Anuradhapura district

  • USP 648
  • L.F 67

Polonnaruwa district

  • USP 173
  • L.F 25

Kegalle district

  • USP 412
  • L.F 66

Ratnapura district

  • USP 705
  • L.F 346

One of the most horrendous aspects of the so-called victory of the UPFA is that it is portrayed in the media as a personal triumph for President Mahinda Rajapakse. It is also portrayed as approval for the Military, led by Mahinda’s brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya. This will pave the way for the military to strengthen its grip on society in general and at the same time give room to Rajapakse to manipulate the constitution so that he can become a constitutional dictator! In the North because of the war thousands of Tamils have become refugees and nothing is made available for those people. Most of the Tamil people are starving and they face death due to this war situation.

Now with their victory, the government appears to be planning to go for a snap general election. At the same time, government leaders are threatening the trade unions to prevent them organising revolt against them in the near future. Some ministers have taunted them and challenged the trade union leaders to go for strike action now if they possibly can! This shows the attitude of the government following the election.

It is true that this election result will have some negative effects on the working class. But it is going to be a temporary thing. The working and poor masses will come back strongly against the capitalist communalist government in the next round of the battle. Socialists have to be prepared to provide the necessary leadership in future mass struggles.