Sri Lanka: Elections and the menace of war

Sri Lanka has just come to the end of a period of elections.

It started last year with the presidential election in November 2005. Mahinda Rajapakse was elected as the new president of Sri Lanka. To become president, he and his party (the SLFP or Sri Lanka Freedom Party) went into a grand alliance with hard-line communal parties like the self-claimed ‘Marxist’ but Sinhala chauvinist JVP (People’s Liberation Front) and the Buddhist monks’ party, the JHU.

Among the main slogans used to win the presidency, they campaigned to abolish the existing cease-fire agreement (CFA) signed in 2002 by the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Mahinda and the JVP/JHU categorically said that the cease-fire agreement, which came after 18 years of civil war, was a “betrayal of the nation”.

Peace talks resumed

Soon after he became president, Rajapakse came under enormous pressure from imperialist countries to re-start talks with the LTTE. There were many predictions that the ‘Tigers’ (LTTE) would not sit with the new, pro-communal president. Surprisingly, the ’Tigers’ agreed to participate in talks and the first round took place in Geneva on February 22 and 23. At the end of the talks in Switzerland a very crucial agreement was arrived at. Among the points were 1) That both parties agreed to continue and implement the CFA and 2) The Sri Lankan government agreed to disarm all the paramilitary forces (armed groups).

The Sri Lankan government agreeing to accept the CFA under Mahinda Rajapakse was a major victory for the LTTE. Really, that was their main aim in attending the talks with the new president as Mahinda’s election manifesto had said that his government would not accept the existing agreement and they would draft a new one.

The agreement to disarm the paramilitary groups (mainly those around the break-away LTTE commander in the East of the island – Karuna) was another big gain for the ‘Tigers’. However, it is not possible for the Sri Lankan government to implement this part of the agreement. The government’s allies have direct connections with the Karuna faction and these paramilitary forces and have been using them to conduct a low intensity war against the LTTE.

Hundreds killed

Since the beginning of April, there have been more than 300 deaths in what has appeared to a situation sliding back into the bloody civil war which started back in 1983. There was the major suicide attack on the top Sri Lankan Army commander in the centre of Colombo in April (see report on CWI web-site) in which 11 people lost their lives. There have been several days of aerial bombardment by Sri Lankan forces on Tamil areas where many civilians live. Tens of thousands who have their homes in the East and North of the island have become refugees once again.

The ‘Sea Tigers’ (LTTE navy) made a full-scale assault on a Sri Lankan naval convoy near Trincomalee in which more than 50 from the two sides were reported killed. The Tigers’ suicide raids just missed a troop-carrier with hundreds of personnel on board.

Soldiers from a camp in the North, near to Jaffna, carried out a murderous raid on Tamil families living on the nearby Kayts Island, killing women and children as well as elderly men in cold blood. Then last week, there was the assassination (probably by Karuna’s forces working with the Sri Lankan Army) of Ramanan, an important Tiger commander in the Batticaloa area.

Round-ups and harassment of Tamils are a daily occurrence in Colombo and other towns. Individual Tamils have been snatched and assassinated, with headless bodies being dumped on the outskirts of town! The premises and staff of voluntary foreign-sponsored organisations have also become targets for attack.

The slide towards “high intensity war” seemed inevitable, but the pressure on both sides not to let this happen is enormous.

The failure of the Sri Lankan government to fulfil the agreement about stopping attacks on Tamils by paramilitary forces was the main reason for the second round of peace talks not taking place as planned. Of course, the LTTE never implemented their commitments from the first round either, such as stopping the recruitment of child soldiers, for example. But these were not highlighted because of the serious nature of the violations of the agreement by the Sri Lankan Government.

Local government elections

Since Mahinda became president, apart from these developments, significant things happened on the election front. The main partners of the Mahinda Rajapakse camp – the JVP and JHU – decided to contest the local government elections separately. In the 30 March local elections, Mahinda scored a big victory again, significantly without the support of the JVP and JHU. Not only that, the JVP and JHU got few victories and these parties were sidelined.

The only party which managed to increase votes is the United Socialist Party. As reported before, in many areas we doubled and even in some trebled the vote compared with the presidential election in November and the USP managed to get its first elected representative – in the Eheliyagoda local council (Pradeseey Saba). This is a clear indication that a section of the workers and poor people clearly believe that socialist change is needed and is possible. The USP can proudly claim that the only socialist left councillor in the whole of Sri Lanka belongs to the USP.

The latest phase of the local government elections was concluded on 20 May. In 20 council areas, they had been delayed because of legal challenges to the parties’ lists being disqualified. The USP contested in two – Colombo Central, in the capital, and Gampaha nearby, where the USP had some hopes of getting elected. But the sharp polarisation of society along communal lines, because of the escalating violence, had a big effect on our results.

In the war mood situation and with the turn-out dropping heavily to between 50 and 55 per cent (compared with over 75% usually), all other parties heavily lost votes compared with November. For example, in Colombo Central, where the nomination of the main opposition United National Party had been rejected for technical reasons, the independent list backed by the UNP got 82,580 compared with the UNP’s 199,160 in the presidential election. The ruling United People’s Front Alliance dropped from 72,404 to 57,158. Also, most significantly, the communal JVP dropped from 9,967 (4.21%) in the last local government elections in 2002 to 6,145 or 2.99%.

In this situation, the only party that managed to maintain its votes or actually increase them was the USP. In Colombo Central, the USP list, supported by the Left Front, got 1,150 votes or 0.57%. In the presidential election, the USP got 987 votes or 0.29% and the Left Front got 232.

In Gampaha, the USP got 242 votes which was 0.97% and more than double the vote in the November presidential election.

The voting pattern in these 20 May elections showed that Mahinda Rajapakse is still popular in the southern part of Sri Lanka due to his pro-communal politics. But in the areas where a mixed population lives, he is loosing. (In the East where there is a large Muslim population, the party supported by the government lost heavily to the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress).

In Colombo where the biggest minority (Tamil) population lives, Mahinda’s mayoral candidate, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, lost out to an independent group of mainly Tamil candidates. This was the list the UNP had supported.

Joint working class struggle needed

Apart from the war burdens on ordinary people, with soaring prices of basic necessities and fuel, Mahinda’s new government has come to the end of a short honeymoon. He is trying to maintain his popularity on communalist politics.

The trade unions and the working class have yet to put forward their class demands. Pro-UPFA union leaders, including those of the now shrunken Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party and the JVP, are betraying the class struggle and trying hard to defend the capitalist government.

In this situation the USP is campaigning for an independent joint trade union convention. The only way out for working class and poor people is along the lines of a united struggle for basic democratic and economic rights, for the rights of oppressed peoples and of oppressed classes.

We have made our socialist voice heard throughout the election campaigns. We have made press declarations against the war preparations and we are calling for peace talks to start which are based on the principle of self-determination and which involve genuine representatives of Sri Lanka’s working and poor people – Sinhala and Tamil. Building the United Socialist Party, now the major left force in Sri Lanka, has become a more vital task than ever.

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