Sri Lanka: Election to end crisis ends in new crisis

United Socialist Party achieves record result

Last Friday’s General Election in Sri Lanka saw a record number of candidates, a record number of parties and a record number of voters. Still it failed to give either of the major party alliances a majority in parliament. The United Socialist Party (cwi in Sri Lanka) scored its highest ever number of votes in a general election and was referred to on the BBC World Service as “The emerging new left party in Sri Lanka today”.

Stale-mate between ruling blocks unresolved

‘United People’s Freedom Alliance’ – forged between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of president Chandrika Kumaratunga and the People’s Liberation Front (JVP) obtained 105 seats in its own right. This was 46% of the total vote, compared with 38% for the United National Front alliance under the outgoing UNP prime minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe which got a total of 82 seats. But a majority in parliament must consist of at least 113 votes.

Siritunga Jayasuriya, Secretary of the USP, reported that still on Monday (5 April) there were frantic attempts going on to ‘win over’ (‘buy’) parliamentary representatives to give the president’s alliance a majority in parliament. “As it stands now (Tuesday) it looks as if, when parliament meets on April 22nd., the six MPs from the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, a Hill Country Tamil-based party which stood on the UNF list will be voting with Chandrika’s Alliance. They appear to have been ‘convinced’ by the offer of two ministerial and two deputy ministerial posts, plus two new MPs’ positions allotted by Chandrika!”

In February, Sri Lanka’s president dramatically dismissed parliament and called a premature general election using her semi-dictatorial powers. She declared herself to be opposed to the government’s economic policies without proposing any real alternative. But her major complaint, leaning on the Sinhala majority in the island, was that too much was being conceded to the Tamil Tiger representatives in peace talks chaired by Norwegian government representatives. In this way, she had brought into her alliance the JVP which dresses its Sinhala anti-Tamil chauvinism in pseudo-Marxist, anti-imperialist rhetoric.

However, the pressure on any government in Sri Lanka – from imperialism’s representatives, the local capitalists and the Tamil-speaking people – to continue the ‘peace process’, has forced Chandrika to say she will renew the talks. This means that today, the Buddhist monks who got 9 seats refuse to support her alliance, and tomorrow, huge strains will open up in the alliance with the JVP representatives.

At an election meeting organised by the USP in Eheliyagoda, just before the poll took place, Siritunga Jayasuriya predicted that, “The election called to resolve the crisis at the top of society will create an even worse one; the real crisis will start from April 3rd!”.

Reasons for the election result

After the election, Siritunga explained the vote in the following way: “The ordinary workers and poor people in general have voted to defeat the pro-western, reactionary, capitalist UNP. The only achievement of the last government was to get the cease-fire almost exactly two years ago. It failed to bring down the sky-high cost of living and create new jobs for young people. Nearly 2 million relatively well educated youth are unemployed.

“Victory for the PA/JVP Alliance represents the mixed, confused feelings of the poor people. On the one hand they spoke about bringing down the cost of living and creating jobs as well as harsh communal policies towards the Tamil-speaking people in the North and East. Mainly the JVP was opposing any kind of devolution of power and the alliance as a whole rejected the homeland concept of the LTTE and the Tamil-speaking people.

“Not only that. This unique form of coalition has made some very popular promises like increasing workers’ wages by 75% within three months and bringing down by 70% the cost of agricultural fertilisers, which really affects the poor farmers. The JVP, who got 40 seats in parliament (up from 16) also promised to clean up government, do away with corruption and wheeling and dealing. This helped to make them the most popular candidates when it came to the individual ratings on the election lists.”

United Socialist Party – only left party to campaign country-wide

“For the USP,” explained Siri, “The election results show that we are the only force seen by serious working, poor and Tamil-speaking people to be fighting from a socialist stand-point against both capitalist camps. Our increased vote has to be seen in the context of the left vote in general declining. We do not welcome this as a trend but we believe that those arguing for a less clear ‘left’ programme, including the ‘New Left Front’ (NLF) of Vickramabahu and Vasudeva Nanayakkara, have lost ground amongst a layer of previously generally left voters, who seem to have preferred the so-called left-leaning Chandrika and the pseudo-Marxists of the JVP.

“This is in spite of the huge resources the NLF spent on advertising in the press and on TV and some of their loss of support is undoubtedly because they were seen to be in the same camp as the capitalist UNP! They supported the peace process, but without putting forward an independent class position. They had a very contradictory attitude towards the Sinhala chauvinist, anti-imperialist JVP. At one stage, not long ago, they said the JVP was the emerging left and all other left groups should join with them. Then they started attacking them as one of the most communalist forces on the island.

“Our party stood in 21 out of the 22 polling areas and got a total vote of 14,660 while the NLF got 8,461. In Gampara near Colombo, we got 2,852 votes (NLF 932), in the Southern area of Matara we got 1,526 (NLF 192). In the Hill Country (plantation) constituency of Nuwara Eliya we polled 1,426 (NLF187), in Anuradhapura towards the North we got 1,439 (NLF 177) and in Matale we got 1,135 (NLF 109).

“In Jaffna – the capital of the Tamils’ ‘Eelam’ or homeland – there was huge pressure on people to give 100% support to the LTTE-backed list of the Tamil National Alliance. It was difficult to campaign door to door but we were able to hold important election meetings in workplaces like the hospital and the bus depot and managed to get nearly 300 votes, coming fifth out of ten lists!”


Tamils set on peace

Jaffna-born Senan, member of the Socialist Party in London, said he was “delighted” with the election for a number of reasons. He thought the USP result was fantastic, given their tiny resources. He described what he had seen on TV overnight on Friday and what lies behind the nearly 90% vote for the TNA in Jaffna and elsewhere in the North and East.

“What makes the election so unique”, he said, “Is the desire shown by the masses for a peace settlement. In many Tamil-populated areas, the election commission did not set up polling stations. However, hundreds and thousands of people from those areas voted in this election.

“One day before election day, they left their homes en masse. Walking, cycling and in busses they came to the places (just over the unofficial ‘border’ of Eelam with the rest of Sri Lanka) where the polling stations were set up. They stayed in schools and temples overnight and woke up before the sun rose to go and queue up to vote. In many places they literally ran towards the polling stations.

“In their election campaign, the LTTE had urged the public to rush to the voting places and make them (through the TNA) the sole representatives of the Tamil-speaking masses. They ran and ran and stood in long queues under the hot sun. It must be said that the overwhelming opinion of the masses is to have peace. ‘We want at least our children to live in non-war zone places’ as one of them put it. They felt they were voting wholeheartedly in favour of the peace agreement, rather than any particular party. ”

It was indeed an historic day for Tamil-speaking voters of the North and East of Sri Lanka. They were determined to exercise the right to vote, denied them for 20 years by the civil war which has taken at least 70,000 lives and created hundreds of thousands of refugees. The armed struggle fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had participated for the first time in elections, through the Tamil National Alliance candidates. They got a fairly clean sweep with 22 seats from the North and East.

The USP and socialist solutions

At the special Election Commission meeting on Sunday 4 April, to discuss challenges to the results, complaints were aired about how the election was conducted in the North. But Siritunga Jayasuriya for the USP exclaimed: “You cannot expect the Election Commissioner to solve the intractable problems of the National Question in Sri Lanka when noone else has yet managed it!”

He explains, “Our party has consistently upheld the rights of Tamil-speaking people both to defend themselves from oppression and to determine their own future. This is now quite widely recognised. We have also explained that, on the basis of capitalism, there will be no long-term solution to these problems or the everyday problems of jobs, housing, wages and education”.

Tamil voters should have no illusions if the TNA MPs in parliament give their backing to Ranil Wickremasinghe’s UNP, on the basis that it has recently been the most favourable towards them. This will not bring them nearer to the genuine self-determination and economic and social stability they have longed for over decades. The nominal victory for the alliance which includes the JVP could, of course, be worse for the Tamil-speaking people if a new round of communal violence is unleashed against them. The United Socialist Party may also come in for some harsh treatment, because of its bold and clear socialist stance on both the social and national questions.

“As we explained in the course of our election campaign the length and breadth of the country,” continued Siri, “A victory for either of the capitalist blocks in this election will not eliminate any of the numerous economic and social hardships faced by the workers, poor and young people of war-torn Sri Lanka – North and South. A massive programme to ensure public ownership and the planned use of all Sri Lanka’s resources under democratic workers’ control and management is what our party will proudly continue to campaign for.

“The USP has been featured on all the main news bulletins by name. We have been interviewed widely, including by the Sinhala service of the BBC. Two TV channels in Sri Lanka, mistakenly, even said we had got our first MP!

“It is early days yet, but there is no doubt now that we are securely on the political map of Sri Lanka. We feel that the clear independent class campaign of the USP offers real hope that a mass socialist party can be built once more in Sri Lanka which can lead a struggle to transform the lives of the whole working and poor population of the island.”

pictures: cwi

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April 2004