Sri Lanka: Another rigged election

What is the way forward now?

One more election under the Rajapakse administration has been concluded. It finished on 17 March. The Election Commissioner himself, having served for a long time in the post and going into retirement after the election, lambasted the government and President Rajapakse for abuse of his position in the course of the election in his use of the state media and government facilities like vehicles, phones and staff.

The ruling United People’s Alliance has created the necessary environment for these abuses to take place, using the police for their own purposes under the cover of the infamous 18th Amendment (See article14/09/2010). President Rajapakse had no intention of appointing an Election Commission, which should have been done according to the provisions of that amendment – not even putting in an amenable one. He was hell-bent on saving face for the government and winning the local councils ‘by hook or by crook’. The Election Commissioner did not even try to make the kind of interventions he has made in previous elections, if only to protect his good name as an impartial arbiter. The Commissioner and the police had no answer this time in the face of open violations of the election laws.

This local council election can be seen as an experiment for the future elections which will be held in line with the 18th Amendment under which almost all the powers are in the hands of the president.  Therefore it is impossible to expect any more of the kind of elections held in the country in the past, which were relatively free and fair. In order to hold these farcical elections, even the judiciary, the Attorney General’s Department, the police and the department of elections have been reduced to the level of mere puppet institutions of the Rajapakse government.

Rigged elections and mass struggle

The recent local council election results should be understood against this background. These elections are not much different from those held in Tunisia under the Ben Ali Presidency. In the last election before he was kicked out by the mass struggle, it was reported that more than 90% of voters had voted for the president. However the whole world was able to see that these fraudulent election results were torn to shreds when the oppressed masses came out onto the streets in their hundreds of thousands. The mass struggles unleashed in North Africa and the Middle East are testimony to the fact that real public opinion is not expressed through rigged elections conducted under the rule of dictators or authoritarian rulers.

Though the situation in Sri Lanka is not yet as bad as in those countries, it is clearly heading in that direction. This is evident from election-related incidents. Politicians of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party engaged in intimidating voters in many areas on election day. The whole Rajapakse family was entrenched in the Hambantota district for the last several days of the election.

An anti-government mood is rising in Sri Lanka and is highest in urban areas. Working people and the lower middle class who live in the towns are fully dependent on their salaries and cannot fall back on growing fruit and vegetables. They are hit very hard by the rapidly rising prices of food and fuel in particular. That is why the government postponed elections to the Municipal councils in the urban areas there.

However in the countryside, people can scratch a living and survive without being fully dependent on buying things in the market. They do not see how bad things are getting. The interest of people in the rural areas in national political developments was very low during the local council elections.

Aftermath of war

Nevertheless, it is no secret that President Rajapakse, when he sensed that defeat could be looming in the elections, stooped to the level of espousing Sinhala – Buddhist communalism and chauvinism. He again used his trump card – Sinhala nationalism – in order to win the election. He appealed to the people of the North to vote for the ruling coalition – those who had brought the war to an end. That was also the only item they could sell to the voters in the South.

The fact that the highest votes for the coalition came from the so-called “border villages” which were on the edge of the conflict zone during the decades-long civil war was testimony to this. For the local councils in the areas worst affected by the war, the ruling coalition’s share of votes ranged from 76% to more than 85%, even surpassing the proportion of the votes in the southern areas. This clearly shows that the victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the establishment of peace has still been a potent factor in forming public opinion.

Even with this situation, the real outcome is not rosy for the government. The vote-base of the coalition is beginning to decline when voting patterns from the provincial council elections in 2008 and 2009 are compared with this time round. In the last provincial council elections the coalition received 63.1% of valid votes. In the presidential election in 2010 it was 57.8% and in the parliamentary elections of the same year it again rose to 60.3%. However, this year the share of the government parties’ dropped to 55.1%, showing that the ruling coalition’s vote base has dropped by 5% even amidst all the corrupt practices, thuggery and intimidation.

At the same time, where there were elections in the mainly Tamil-speaking North and East, the government was roundly defeated. The Tamil National Alliance, which contested the election as ITAK (Lanka Tamil State Party), won a majority in 12 out of 15 local councils in those areas. In the absence of an alternative party of workers and poor, the TNA vote is a clear expression of protest, or at least the dissatisfaction of Tamil people, in relation to this government. Similarly most Muslim people in the East have also indicated that they are distancing themselves from the government which is dominated by Sinhalese from the South.

Although the president has boasted that he has unified the country after winning the war, the outcome of the elections means that the majority of the Tamils and Muslims have rejected Rajapakse’s notion of a unitary Sri Lanka. The government’s sinister plan of putting in the ‘infamous’ K.P. (Kumaran Pathmanathan) as a compliant leader of the northern people has been thrown out by them through the way they have used their vote.(K.P. was an LTTE leader, now held in a kind of open custody by the government. He has been free to work in Jaffna where he has his own radio station and a lot of money at his disposal).

The truth that ultimately comes out from the results of this election is that the minority Tamil and Muslim people cannot be deceived by the propaganda about ‘development’ which is aimed at blurring their view of things.

Declining votes

In the context of the ruling party espousing Sinhala chauvinism, votes for the JVP (People’s Liberation Front) went down dramatically. It is still often perceived as a left party by ordinary people, although it has taken a national chauvinist position and espoused ‘progressive’ capitalism. It was badly affected by the ending of the civil war and the fact that the UPA had stolen its clothes on the national question. They lost up to three quarters of their votes and a substantial number of their elected members.

Votes for left parties also declined and the United Socialist Party (CWI in Sri Lanka) lost its one councillor in Eheliyagoda. The USP had a no-contest agreement rather than an electoral alliance with the Nava Sama Samaja Party, who stood in just five council areas. Their score was generally much lower than that achieved by the USP who campaigned in twelve areas (though three elections were postponed for legal reasons). The circumstances were very difficult with voters polarised between the ruling party and the opposition. The USP had huge difficulty convincing people to vote for its clear-cut alternative to the government and the opposition parties who all stand with the bosses and the landlords against the working and poor people.

The main opposition United National Party was able to increase its overall percentage of votes but failed to draw to it the large number of workers and peasants who have lost heart with the Rajapakse government. Again and again it has been proved that the UNP, which is the party of neo-liberalism and global capitalism, is unable to gain the confidence of the most oppressed people.

Building a workers’ and poor people’s party that fights for the rights of the oppressed masses including Tamil and Muslim people and Hill country estate workers is essential. The USP espouses a programme of essential measures to enhance the living standards of the majority of the people in Sri Lanka. This includes:- An end to price rises; no cuts in subsidies; trade union action to fight for decent wages and conditions; permanent jobs and a decent minimum wage for all; a crash programme of house-building in the war-torn and flood-hit areas; public ownership of banks, land and big companies under democratic workers’ control and management; a democratic plan of production for need and not for profit.

Only on such a basis can the left garner the support of the anti-capitalist, anti-government masses and strive to build a leadership for future mass struggles.

Prospect of upsurge

When the expectations of the people for a better life that they placed in the present government begin to crumble it will be inevitable that mass agitations and struggles spring up in almost every field and sphere. The Rajapakse regime, like an octopus, is endeavoring to get hold of all the nerve centres of the country by imposing its repressive measures and holding fraudulent elections. Dictators often have a mindset that they can hold power for life and can plunder public property and resources at will. They imagine they can use every power at their disposal.

But it should be remembered that even when people seem to be sleeping or silent for a time because their freedoms have been suppressed, democracy trampled upon and rights violated, they can rise and awaken like a giant. The mass wave of anger that has arisen in the North African and Middle Eastern countries will not be limited to their borders. Recently nearly a million people were on a mass protest in London – a significant new development in workers’ struggles in Europe.

Sri Lanka will not be left out of this upsurge in revolt. Hundreds and thousands of miles across the oceans, the storm of mass struggle can reach this island. In spite of all the rigging of elections and imposition of emergency laws, dictatorships like those of Rajapakse are by no means secure.

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April 2011