In the presidential election held yesterday in Sri Lanka the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa has suffered a fatal blow. The opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, won with 6,217,162 votes (51.3%) against Rajapaksa’s 5,768,090 votes(47.6%).
Mahinda has become one of the most unpopular presidents in the history of Sri Lanka, responsible for establishing dictatorial power in the hands of his very own Rajapaksa dynasty. They had become notoriously mired in corruption. He is also known as the destroyer of freedom of speech and of democratic rights and as the butcher of the Tamils, after the way he ended the civil war in 2009 with the massacre of tens of thousands of Tamil people.
As soon as he came to power in a narrow victory in 2005, he used every opportunity to strengthen his family’s grip on power. As Siritunga Jayasuria, general secretary of the United Socialist Party, who came third in that election, warned at the time, Rajapakse unleashed the dogs of Sinhala nationalist chauvinism. With the increasing ties with China particularly from 2007, came military and economic help to finish the war and to consolidate his power. Since then Chinese investment has increased dramatically to the situation where today China is a major economic partner of Sri Lanka. There are no reliable figures available but it is estimated that so far China has invested over $5 billion and Sri Lanka has quickly become a focus in the sharply changing balance in the geopolitics of South Asia - a valuable pearl on China’s ‘String of Pearls (bases)’ in the region.
Chinese interests built Hambantota harbour which has recently become a flashpoint with India after the Chinese moved a submarine into it. Chinese investment and infrastructure development played a key role in maintaining the much-required stability which helped Mahinda to survive the last ten years. Initially, the IMF did help to rescue the then deteriorating economy with a loan of $2.7bn when it was hit by crisis. However western imperialism’s support diminished over time to the extent that the US gave a clear indication that they would like to see a ‘regime change’ and the cessation of Chinese influence. At the UNHCR, the US representatives led the initiative to try and set up a war crimes inquiry and also indicated that sanctions were a possibility by March of this year. This election has been seen as a contest between competing interests in the region – those of China, India and western capitalist powers.
Although the economy has been growing at 7% - one of the fastest growing economies in the world - the masses had no feeling that the economy was going forward. The popular support that Mahinda enjoyed during the immediate post-war period amongst the Sinhala majority had begun to decline rapidly. They were all too aware of the rising prices, attacks on education and health etc. Teachers, Free Trade Zone workers, fishermen and public service workers have all protested against his government. A general understanding has developed among the masses that the Chinese investment was only strengthening the President’s family and their wealth. Even a section of the capitalist class in Sri Lanka felt let down and that they were excluded from any benefits of the investment and development.
Under this pressure, and aware of his growing unpopularity, Mahinda gave in to superstition and let his astrologer name the 8th for his snap election two years early.
Under his heavy fist of repression, the real face of the opposition was hidden, but it was revealed as soon as the election was called. A rift opened up within his own ranks and his long-time ally and the general secretary of the SLFP, his own party, came forward as the opposition candidate which opened the floodgates for Mahind’s support to fall. 26 members of parliament, including a number of his own ministers, switched to the opposition. Even when Mahinda staged the jumping ship of an opposition UNP parliamentarian to his side, he could not change his fortunes. No support was forthcoming from any direction for him. In fact the SLMC (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress) joined the opposition, coming under huge pressure recently from the Muslim masses following the attacks they have faced from the Sinhala chauvinist BBS organisation, which claims to have links with the defence ministry under Mahinda’s brother.
Not only the discriminated against Tamils and Muslims would not vote for Mahinda, but a new phenomenon developed in the south with many layers of the middle class moving against him, including activists and journalists, artists and others. It became clear then that there was a diminishing chance that Mahinda could win. This gave certain strength to the opposition which began to gather momentum. The post-war mania that Mahinda hoped would carry him through had died in the face of a lack of improvement in the the conditions of the majority of the population.
However, there remained the huge shadow of whether he would use violence - use the massive state military, etc. - to maintain his rule. He abused his control of the state machinery to make propaganda for himself and a huge amount of interference did take place as expected. He prevented journalists and activists from travelling to Sri Lanka to observe and participate in the election. Death threats were issued against human rights activists and the military was used to intimidate voters. Despite all of this, there was a high turn-out (around 75%) in the election and many millions voted to kick Rajapaksa out. ‘Get Mahinda out!’ was the driving motivation – not a positive sentiment for the opposition Maithri Sirisena. Mahinda still enjoyed support from his Sinhala chauvinist base in the country and the eventual vote was polarised between the two main candidates.
Maithri did not offer anything substantial. He maintained that he would follow the Rajapaksa steps on security and protect the country and the Mahinda family from the war crimes investigation. He did however pledge to remove the executive presidency and return to a British-style democracy and reinstate General Fonseka and the chief justice who were both sacked under Mahinda. He and the UNP leader Ranil Wikramasinge promised the bosses that they would discontinue some of the Chinese projects and investigate corruption involving Chinese investment.
No intention of changing the economic conditions of the masses was forthcoming from the opposition. But the Rajapaksa family had fuelled so much anger that discontent with their family grip on power was a clear factor that dominated the election. Although there was no positive alternative on offer, the masses took the risk of voting for Maithri to get rid of this maniac.
Even Mahinda acknowledged that the masses merely faced a choice of two evils – or two devils. He urged a vote for himself, the ‘known devil’! In his election public rally in the majority Tamil area in the north, some dull-witted Rajapaksa supporters claimed that the opposition should also take responsibility for the massacre and use of cluster bombs against civilians because Maithri was in the cabinet at the time of the attacks! But the attitude was similar to that at the time of the 2010 election when Tamils were prepared to vote for army general Fonseka who was in charge of the war in a bid to remove Mahinda. But the leadership of the Tamil party, the TNA did not reflect this mood – they did not just ask the Tamils to vote for Maithri as the best way on offer to remove Mahinda, but promoted illusions that he would deliver something.
It is in these circumstances that the USP stood, calling for the building of a mass force of workers and poor to win the changes needed. Siritunga Jayasuriya stood as an opposition candidate and was able to call meetings with sometimes up to a thousand participating. He called for involvement in the election not only to get rid of Mahinda but to start the building of a mass organisation. He was the only candidate to stand for the rights of the Tamils to self-determination, withdrawal of troops from the north and east, no to privatisation, and many other demands in the interests of workers and the masses.
In his campaign Siri exposed the inability of either of the two main camps - wedded to capitalism - to achieve what is needed for the majority of working and oppressed people. Initially the USP argued for a common left candidate with elements of a socialist programme of nationalisation etc. Despite including a number of demands proposed by the USP, the FSP still limited its programme when it came to the rights of minorities in society. However, none of the other left in Sri Lanka was willing to stand firmly and openly for the national aspirations of the Tamils, linked to the end of oppression and exploitation. Siritunga also explained that, while executive powers must be abolished, at the same time returning to a British parliamentary system is not a solution.
The United Socialist Party candidate urged the masses to take lessons from their historical experience of voting for this or that capitalist party which did not benefit them – if not worse. He explained that the Sri Lankan constitution does not serve the people and should be scrapped. Siritunga Jayasuriya and the USP during the election promoted the demand for a revolutionary constituent assembly.
When the results came through, Siritunga had received 8,840 votes - a decent vote in the polarised and difficult situation that the USP faced in this election. Among others who stood on the left, the FSP (Front-line Socialist Party) received 9,941 votes while the NSSP, which stood a ‘dummy’ candidate while openly campaigning for the main capitalist opposition candidate, received 4,047 votes.
Winning the trust of the masses to vote for left and socialist candidates in Sri Lanka is a hard task because of the country’s history of betrayals. Even up to today the ‘Communist’ Party and the once-socialist LSSP have participated in the government and gave their support to Mahinda in this election! The Sinhala nationalist JVP, although at one time claiming to be Marxist and lately in the opposition, maintains its Sinhala nationalism and is not able to act as a genuine Marxist party. The FSP, which split from the JVP, still has an inadequate programme on the National Question in particular.
In the face of all of these difficulties, the USP maintained its principled stand to build for the rights of the Tamil people and the building of a mass fighting socialist force beyond the election.
Now that the executive power is transferred to Maithri, the masses will expect change within 100 days as he promised. But at the same time it is very difficult to see how much he can change as long as the Mahinda family still maintains a grip on power. A period of political uncertainty has opened up. Maithri is not an alternative to Rajapakse that will deliver anything for working and poor people and the youth of Sri Lanka.
It is more vital than ever to build the organisational strength of the masses to take the demands of the United Socialist Party forward.