Sri Lanka: Elections in war-devastated north bode ill for government

Tamil people “Not prepared to surrender”

Only weeks after declaring ‘victory’ in Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, the Rajapakse government aimed to use ‘elections’ in the north of the island to consolidate its power. This was to follow the pattern in the East. There, after the defection in 2004 to the government side of Karuna, the area’s ‘Tamil Tiger’ commander, and the gradual smothering of hostilities, elections were ‘won’ (at gun-point and through fraudulent practices) by allies of the central government.

In elections on 8 August, in Jaffna, the ‘capital’ of the Tigers’ homeland, little more than one fifth of eligible voters went to the polls. This in itself is a set-back for the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance, whose winning 50% amounts to a mere 10,602 voters. Of those, about 3,000 were the votes of Muslims who were originally residents of Jaffna, pushed out by the LTTE about ten years ago and now living much further south in the province of Puttalam. Four of the new Jaffna councillors are Muslims from this area!

The government alliance was closely followed by ITAK, the electoral title of the Tamil National Alliance. They saw over 8,000 people prepared to support them. (Other pro-Tamil groupings got nearly another 2,000 votes.) The main capitalist opposition party, the United National Party, often supported by Tamils in other elections, got just 83 votes in the Jaffna election.

These elections were never going to portray a real picture of the feelings of the predominantly Tamil electorate after their desperate struggle for self-determination appeared to have been finally crushed. They were hastily organised, overseen by the ‘occupying troops’ troops and contested by government parties who had the run of the place and huge resources to badger people into voting for them.

In Vavuniya, the ruling alliance fared worse than in Jaffna. Once an important hub of trade and some industry south of the ‘border’ with the Tiger-held territory, this town suffered heavy damage before the last push of the Sri Lankan forces towards Mannar in the West and Killinocchi in the North.

Defeat for Rajapakse in Vavuniya

In Vavuniya, half the registered voters turned out. Twenty per cent of Vavuniya’s electorate is Sinhala, yet the ruling alliance of the president’s party got less than 25% of the total vote. A pro-government Tamil party, Democratic Peoples Liberation Front (DPLF), came second. The council will now be run by the TNA councillors in alliance with the Muslim Congress (whose supporters are Tamils). The polarisation in the North was shown by the number of votes cast for the United National Party – just 228 meaning the main capitalist opposition party in the country failed to get even one seat in Vavuniya.

The ‘victorious’ Sinhala chauvinist government’s attempt to ‘legitimise’ its domination in the North, however has suffered a considerable set-back in these elections. This is despite the fact that they were hastily organised and gave no time for the Tamil-speaking people to develop independent, genuinely democratic and socialist parties.

But the overwhelming majority of Tamils in the country and all genuine democrats and socialists are still full of anger about the treatment of Tamil refugees and the attempts of the government to settle Sinhalese army families in the North. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils are still held in the government’s barbarous concentration camps. Many more are homeless – their houses, workplaces and livelihoods wrecked. In the recent monsoon rains, the camps have been turned into a new form of killing fields. The primitive toilets have inevitably been flooded. Human excrement covers the ground. Some refugees have been re-settled (still held in ‘detention’) but tens of thousands remain in these nightmare conditions. They are being left to face disease, agony and numerous losses, especially of children and the elderly.

Different in South

The other election held on 8 August was in the Uva ‘Hill Country’ Province – Badulla and poverty-stricken Monoragala. There are reports that less than half the population even registers to vote in this remote area, such is their lack of confidence that anyone will fight to change their miserable lives.

Here again, government ministers strutted about to support local candidates. They poured millions of rupees into the campaign and had the president’s nephew running for the top post as Chief Minister. The United Socialist Party (CWI) was battling against huge odds, with down-trodden tea plantation workers even refusing to take anti-government leaflets in case it got them into trouble. The main opposition party, the UNP, which usually gives the government a close run, got just over 22% of the vote to the UPFA’s 72%. Even the Sinhala chauvinist People’s Liberation Front (JVP) was squeezed to 2.5% getting just one seat. Every one of the USP’s 429 votes represents some hope for the future – that there will be voters prepared to back, and even campaign, for a party that stands for their interests as workers and poor and not for parties that simply squeeze their life-blood from them.

Socialist campaign to unite Sinhala and Tamil workers

A further round of elections is taking place in the South of the country soon. Then the presidential election is expected in mid-January. To get back in for another term, Mahinda Rajapakse needs to get more than £70% of the Sinhala vote. Although the 74% in Uva was reassuring, the elections in the North indicate that this will not be guaranteed. The United Socialist Party is set to campaign in the coming elections on the issues that face working people of all communities.

“The International Monetary Fund has finally agreed its massive loan to the Sri Lankan government and many people have their eyes closed,” commented Siritunga Jayasuriya from the USP. At present they think some of this huge some of money, as well as the end of the war, will benefit them. Far from it!

“We are going to participate in the Galle elections and, most likely, in the presidential election when it comes. We are also preparing an important poster campaign in the capital, Colombo, bringing out the issues that affect workers most – the continuing rise in the cost of living, the attacks on trade union and democratic rights, the total underfunding of schools etc. There are many months before the presidential election is due and workers and young people in Sri Lanka will gradually come to see that the Rajapakse chauvinists are no friends of theirs.

“We have seen from the elections in Vavuniya and Jaffna that the Tamil people are in no mood to surrender to this government. The basis for a revival in struggle and in socialist ideas is there. We just have to maintain and strengthen our forces, holding up the flag of socialist ideas and organising for a renewal of united working class struggle that brings together Sinhala, Tamil and other workers. This is the only way to cut across the chauvinism and communalism that has poisoned our country for so long.”

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