Sri Lanka: Political crisis at the top leads to new elections

The president has prepared the ground for elections through several dramatic measures during the last few months. On 4 November she conducted a ’mini-coup’, taking command of three minister’s posts from the UNP government. On 20 January, her party, the SLFP, formed an alliance with the chauvinist communalist party, the JVP (People’s Liberation Front).

On 7 February, Sri Lanka’s president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, dissolved parliament and announced a new election on 2 April. Her hope is that the current widespread discontent and protests will pave the way for the defeat of the present government, led by the United National Party (UNP), a rival capitalist party to her own – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Political tension is growing in the country, which could even threaten the cease-fire between the army and the ’Tamil Tiger’ liberation fighters – the LTTE.
PerAke Westerlund, recently in Sri Lanka, spoke to Siritunga Jayasuriya and other comrades of the United Socialist Party (cwi, Sri Lanka). cwi online.

Political crisis at the top leads to new elections

Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power in 1994, on a promise to deliver peace, after more than a decade of war between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers. But soon afterwards, the war restarted, on the orders of the new president. In 2001, the traditional capitalist party, the UNP, won the general election and formed a government, also on a campaign promising peace. This time, war weariness and the desire for peace among the masses, plus pressure from both imperialism and local capitalists, led to a ceasefire in February 2002.

In all other fields, the UNP government has produced discontent and opposition. They are the agents of imperialism, conducting a neo-liberal policy. No new jobs have been created and there are no efforts to improve education. Youth unemployment is still chronically high.

Capitalists invited

Indian capitalists in particular have been invited to invest, first of all in tea plantations. Now some are planning to buy the Sri Lankan railways, which are in the pipeline for privatisation. The government’s proposal to sell off the rail system has been answered by the trade unions with a massive railway workers’ strike, which went into a second week.

The discontent with government economic policy and the pressure from Sinhala communalists against a peace deal, was undoubtedly behind the president’s coup of 4 November. The peace talks, still in their early stages, reached a new phase on 1 November, with the publication of the LTTE’s proposal for an Interim Self Governing Council for the North and the East of the island, with a majority of Tamils and Tamil-speaking people.

As a response, president Kumaratunga seized three ministerial posts, including Defence Minister, and launched extremely sharp criticisms of Prime Minister Ranil Wickramesinghe, of the UNP. Soldiers were stationed on the streets and the TV net-work put under her control.

Still, the attempted coup did not get the popular support that the SLFP might have hoped. The imperialist powers and Sri Lanka’s own capitalists urged the two major parties to overcome their sharp dispute. Among Sinhala workers and people in general, there is still strong support for the ceasefire that has made their life easier. For many years during the war, people thought twice before going to Colombo because of the risks. Schools were often closed and parents had to take special protective measures.

Alliance with the JVP

The next step for Kumaratunga was her party’s alliance with the JVP. That is a unique party even on an international scale, combining quasi-Marxist rhetoric with outright Sinhala racism. It is a party without any principles. For a long time, the JVP campaigned, even with arms, against the extreme power of the president, granted by the constitution. Now, they have no complaints about that, forming an alliance with the president herself. The chauvinism of the JVP against the rights of the Tamil-speaking population of Sri Lanka has historically meant it being extremely anti-Indian, because the link between the large Tamil population in south India and those within Sri Lanka. Today, the JVP holds up the the ruling Indian Hindu chauvinist party, the BJP, as one of their role models. The economic policies of India, Malaysia and China have been praised by the JVP leaders.

It is still not clear what the Alliance’s programme on the national question will be. The JVP previously demanded that: 1) The Norwegian negotiators should be told to leave the country. 2) The Memorandum of Understanding (the ceasefire agreement) should be abandoned. 3) Roadblocks should be reintroduced. 4) The LTTE camps in the East should be removed by the army. But for more than three months, president Kumaratunga has been Minister of Defence without introducing any of these measures. Yet, the JVP forms an alliance with her party!

In January, the president started to tone down her criticism of the peace negotiations. She underlined that both the SLFP and the JVP wanted an agreement. The reason behind this emphasis is that she has also come under pressure from imperialist powers who want security for future investment and, of course, she wants votes. Opinion polls show that a big majority want continued peace negotiations.

The JVP hopes to gain more votes and MPs through the alliance with the president’s party. Their profile will be ’anti-imperialist’ towards the UNP government, with ’patriotic’ slogans to keep their base among the Sinhala chauvinists. The platform of the Alliance, however, contains little in the way of a different economic policy compared with the UNP except some rhetoric against privatisation (which the PA government also carried through!). The forming of the alliance, and even more, an election victory for it, will therefore create big problems for the JVP’s image as some kind of ’left’ party.

The UNP, on the other hand, will portray itself as the peace alternative. This is despite the fact that they have not managed to achieve real progress in that direction for the last few years. Neither of the major parties has given a full response to the proposals of the LTTE. They are both afraid of losing Sinhala votes if they make any concrete proposals for devolution of power to the LTTE. The UNP will have support from the majority of the capitalist class, who wants stability to be able to increase their profits.

New attacks

After an election victory, a government of either the United National Front (of the UNP) or the SLFP-JVP, will continue with attacks on workers’ conditions. The chauvinist mood whipped up by the new alliance will make moves towards peace negotiations more difficult. Even if the president keeps all doors open by being chauvinist to one audience and peace-wishing to another, the risk of communalist violence or even an end to the ceasefire has increased.

The election underlines a political crisis of the Sri Lankan bourgeois parties and the impasse of Sri Lankan capitalism. Communalism can reappear and act as a diversion because of the discontent among the masses.

The position of the United Socialist Party (CWI, Sri Lanka) is clear, explained Siritunga Jayasuriya. We support self-determination and a homeland for the Tamils. At the same time, we explain that the capitalist system offers no real answer to the social and economic crisis. The capitalist Tamil Nadu in India has millions of starving people. Only a socialist society, achieved by the working class, both Tamil and Sinhala, can solve the crisis. We also defend the rights of trade unions and parties in the North and the East, arguing against the LTTE having absolute power."

The rest of the left in Sri Lanka are repeating the classical mistakes of alliances with bourgeois parties. The Communist Party general secretary, Dew Goonasekare, actually met with the president, and complained: "Madam, we have been supporting you for years, since your mother’s time (her mother was Prime Minister), but you have completely turned your back on us with the alliance with the JVP”. Both the CP and the former Trotskyist party, the LSSP, are in the ’Peoples Alliance’ with the SLFP.

’Communist loyalists’

The president replied that she agreed that the CP had been most loyal and ensured it of further cooperation. Both the CP and the LSSP will probably remain formally outside the new alliance, but in practice support it.

The NSSP, another left party, on the other hand, has, in the past, leaned towards the UNP as a peace alternative. Back in 1987-88 the NSSP supported the Indo-Lanka Accord, a so-called pact for peace in Sri Lanka, signed between Colombo and New Delhi, which turned out to be a catastrophe.

Left parties like the CP and LSSP have been following the same pattern since 1964, when the CP and the then mass LSSP joined a coalition government with the SLFP.

The paper of the USP will this year publish a series of articles about these 40 years of betrayals. The USP will campaign for an independent left front on a socialist programme, to win the best workers who look to these parties in the building of a socialist mass force.

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February 2004