Sri Lanka: Presidential Election – Socialists challenge capitalist and communalist candidates

Sri Lanka is experiencing one of its deepest-ever crises. Since the new millennium began, there have been four major elections in this country. Many of Sri Lanka’s workers and down-trodden people are faced with a struggle for survival and see no point in the elections; nothing changes for the better in their lives.

Now they are being pressurised to take sides in a presidential election on 17 November. They are being forced to choose between two major candidates who are simply making unreal promises and spending huge sums of money. Whatever populist phrases they come out with, both of them stand firmly in the camp of the Sri Lankan capitalist class – itself in hock to the World Bank and the IMF.

Our party, the United Socialist Party, is standing a candidate in these elections to bring hope back to those who don’t want to vote for either of the main candidates. In putting forward our programme of socialist demands, we are calling on them to use their vote to support the struggle against all capitalist, imperialist, and communalist forces.

The circumstances in which these elections have arisen mean that the biggest question before the voters is whether there will, or will not, be a resumption of war. In spite of the three year ceasefire between the liberation Tamil tigers of Elam and the Sri Lankan government, under president Chandrika Kumaratunga, the international ‘donors’ and investors were exerting big pressure to get some progress towards a real peace settlement. Chandrika was making some moves towards restarting talks but was blocked by her ‘allies’ in government – the Sinhala chauvinist JVP and the semi-fascist, Buddhist JHU.

Objecting to any moves towards autonomy for the Tamil-speaking people in the areas where they form an overwhelming majority, the JVP walked out of the government when an agreement, called PTOMS, was signed with the ‘Tigers’ dealing with the long delayed distribution of Tsunami aid. Now the candidate chosen by Chandrika – the present prime minister, Mahinda Rajapakse – has got agreement with the JVP and JHU to back him in the presidential race. He signed a deal with them promising to scrap PTOMS and to have nothing to do with restarting peace talks on the terms put forward by the LTTE. In spite of his phrases about ‘solving’ the national question, he has shown himself to be a thoroughly anti-Tamil communalist.

A choice between poison or the pistol

Ranil Wickeremesinghe, on the other hand, leader of the United National Party, has responded to pressure from these same ‘donors’ and investors abroad. Although his party was in government in 1983 when open warfare with the Tamil Tigers was started, as presidential candidate he now promises to restart the peace talks and break the logjam that has left the country once more on the brink of war.

Whoever wins, the prospect of the country is dire. In spite of all their promises, neither of the main candidates has a plan which would rapidly lift the working and poor people out of the daily crises that affect them. Prices on basic goods and fuel have rocketed in the course of this year. Petrol has almost doubled and basic foods have gone up 80%.

Rajapakse is promising no more privatisations, but his government has sold of more than even the previous UNP government! Serious commentators here are predicting that this pledge is bound to be reversed on the basis of international pressure. We say that on the basis of capitalism, war and economic catastrophe stare the mass of the population in the face.

The way I explain what is on offer in this election is that there are two big guys. One of them has a pistol in his hand and the other a bottle of poison. Mahinda offers the pistol and Ranil the poison. The only difference between them is that one kills quickly whereas the other takes a little longer!

We have seen recently that even Chandrika may want to show the world that she and her party – the SLFP – does not want to be associated with the open communalism of her chosen candidate. Rumours that she was considering dissolving parliament and taking the SLFP into a general election without the JVP and JHU are denied. But there are other signs of problems in the ruling camp. For the first time ever, Chandrika and her brother Anura were absent from the annual ceremony to mark death of their father – SWRD Banderanike, founder of the SLFP.

With the developing communal tension behind Rajapakse’s campaign, most of the Tamil- speaking people, including the Muslim business leaders, are considering supporting the Wickeremeninghe campaign. The LTTE has summoned the Tamil National Alliance MPs to their headquarters in the Vanni jungle and instructed them not to make any public statements until the nominations are over. However, the LTTE reaction to the rising communal threat in the South is going to play a key role during the election period.

No to war mongering and communalism

Our party is in confident mood. We feel we are totally justified in putting forward an independent, socialist candidate. Our aim is to build our party as a fighting force to combat all the anti-working class policies of whichever candidate wins.

One of our main slogans is: “No to war-mongering and communalism!”. We have a proud record of defending the right of the Tamil-speaking people to be free from national oppression and discrimination and to self-determination.

Standing in this election has already brought us phone calls and visits to our office from left and working class leaders. They are totally opposed to the position taken by the small left forces of the old Communist Party, by remnants of the LSSP and even by the veteran one-time Trotskyist, Vasudeva Nanayakkara who are all backing the Sinhala chauvinist, Mahinda Rajapakse. In the last presidential election of 1999 we supported the candidacy of Vasudeva and actively worked for him. This was mainly because of his principled stand on the national question and the rights of Tamil-speaking people. Now he is trampling on his own past record and acting as a left cover for the communalist camp. He is using bogus arguments that a big majority for Rajapakse would mean he could scrap his promises to the JVP and the JHU on PTOMS and the peace talks.

We have already pasted up 10,000 posters in some of the main areas of Sri Lanka. (Prime Minister Rajapakse has had no less than one million multi-colour posters put up for him!). Ours is the only poster produced in the two main languages – Sinhala and Tamil. We are travelling the country, to get our message across and to encourage the people to join us in the struggle – workers and poor farmers and fisherman, especially the Tsunami affected people with who we have been struggling for justice.

The Auditor General’s department has just published a report on Tsunami relief that confirms what we have been saying all along. The government has proved itself totally corrupt and inefficient. Just 13.5% of foreign funds and aid has been used to date. Only 2% of houses, or just 1,055 out of a total of nearly 50,000 damaged houses, have been completed.

In the course of the presidential campaign we are continuing our work with the ‘Tsunami people’. We are combining the demands for a better deal from the government with the provision of shoes, clothing and books for children who will be starting their education next January in the still half-ruined schools in the worst affected areas.

We have launched a campaign to collect funds to conduct our election campaign and have already got a marvellous response. We got press and TV publicity last week when we were among the first three parties to lodge our deposits. Now we are mobilising a big turn-out of members and supporters for a show of strength on Nomination Day, October 7th. After that, it is a drive to get the maximum vote and to get a much strengthened United Socialist Party to fight the many battles ahead in the struggle to transform society.

Further reports and the election material of the campaign will be available on the CWI web-site in the coming days and weeks.

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