Sri Lanka: Identifying the challenges after defeat of Rajapaksa

Working class struggle top priority for socialists

The parliamentary election that took place in Sri Lanka on 17th August could turn out to be a turning point in the political life of the country. The clique around former president Mahinda Rajapaksa tried to play up Sinhala racism on the Sri Lankan political stage. The defeat he had suffered at the presidential election held on 8th January this year was reckoned by them to have been due to Tamil pro-Eelam (separatist) voters. Accordingly, Mahinda Rajapaksa fired up his henchmen. People like Wimal Weerawansha, Dinesh Gunawardene and Vasudeva Nanayakkara declared that Mahinda Rajapaksa was still President of the South of Sri Lanka.

After the defeat at the presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa should have accepted it and retired forthwith. But, instead, in a high-handed manner he made it clear he wanted to become the prime ministerial candidate in the parliamentary election, initiating a rebellion in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. To make his dream a reality, there was nothing which not put into action by the Rajapaksa clique to rouse Sinhala chauvinism in the south so that Rajapaksa would be enthroned again as the another great Sinhala King. He launched his election campaign with the slogan ‘Let’s start afresh!’ and his campaign was called ‘On the Mahinda Wind’. But all the high expectations were dashed to smithereens when the faction of the “charismatic” and nationalistic Mahinda Rajapaksa suffered a 2nd innings defeat even greater than that of the 1st innings at the presidential election.

The most striking characteristic of the defeat of the United Peoples Front Alliance (UPFA), spearheaded by Mahinda Rajapaksa, is that they were rejected by a large section of the Sinhala people in the south. At the election for president in January, Rajapaksa obtained 5.8 million votes – nearly 48% of the total number of votes. At the parliamentary election in August, he could only muster 4.7 million – just over 42%. (The details of the votes polled are given in detail below.) These statistics indicate that the electoral base of Mahinda Rajapaksa has decreased by 1,100,000 over a period of 7 months. Even though Mahinda suffered this defeat, the possibility of activities of racist forces unfolding against the Ranil (UNP) government, in the face of an environment of political crisis, should not be under-estimated.

UNP-led government

Leaving aside Mahinda’s story, it is necessary to identify correctly the nature of, and the path ahead for, the government of the United National Party under the leadership of Ranil Wickramasinghe. His party did not forge ahead and establish a strong government with a majority on its own, which would have needed over 112 seats in the 225-seat parliament. With just 106 seats, Ranil could only have formed a weak minority government. The UNP was not able to obtain the necessary power to steam-roller a capitalist neo-liberal economic plan of action through Sri Lankan society on its own. It has left a bit of a breathing space for people to enjoy some recovery from the sufferings of the recent past.

This general election was more of a defeat for Mahinda Rajapaksa than a victory for Ranil. It is clear that people supported the UNP to express their enmity for Mahinda. But the policies adopted by Ranil were not able to attract ordinary people. It was just his old ‘Re-gaining Sri Lanka’ programme, now called ‘A new Country’. In the same way that Chandrika Kumaratunga cheated the people in 1994 when she had said that a humane face would be given to the ‘open’ economy, this time Ranil introduced a new phrase: ‘social market economy’ – another deliberate fabrication to cheat the people.

However, it will be no surprise if, due to the shameless nature of the two main capitalist parties in Sri Lanka – the UNP and the SLFP, Ranil can muster a majority of members of parliament – and even a 2/3 majority – to enact constitutional amendments. At the general election in 2010, even Mahinda Rajapaksa did not manage to obtain a 2/3 majority. But in a short space of time he managed to get the 2/3 powers in parliament that he wanted. In the same way, Ranil could also build up a mixture of various people for the government to obtain the required strength.

Unlike with the dictatorial Rajapaksa administration, there seems to be a line in Sri Lankan society that Ranil will not cross and act on the basis of Sinhala Nationalism. One reason for this stance is that Ranil has received a majority through the votes of Tamil and Muslim people. But Marxists cannot give a certificate to any capitalist leader, including Ranil. Sri Lankan history, from the time Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948 up until now, is rich in evidence that whenever the two main capitalist parties – the UNP and the SLFP – face social crises, they whip up Sinhala Nationalism to save and consolidate their power.

Perspectives for change

Ranil Wickramasinghe had remained in opposition for an unusually long 20 years before being able to try again to try and form a government under his leadership. His sole ambition was to govern the county according the needs of the capitalist class. Ranil Wickramasinghe is the main Sri Lankan capitalist leader to have established powerful international relations with western governments and gain their confidence. Ranil’s role model was Lee KuanYew, who was Prime Minister of Singapore for decades and he has tried to follow in his foot-steps. Lee was the chief architectof modern Singapore and established a strict, unyielding anti-democratic administration. He was utterly allergic to Communism. His dictatorial administration was described by capitalist commentators as “Enlightened Despotism” but there was no leniency in Lee’s administration and vicious repression was the symbol of his long reign.

More time is needed in order to make predictions as to how far Ranil Wickramasinghe will be able to advance on his dream path. But one thing is clear: the UNP election plan points to privatisation of power, water etc., and handing over health services to a private Board and selling off education. It is very clear that Ranil follows a foreign policy friendlier to the west, especially to the USA. It is certain that opposition will arise from the working class, poor farmers and youth. When compared to what happened under the Rajapaksa administration, the class struggle will move towards a more decisive stage during Ranil’s period of administration.

The first hurdle that Ranil’s government will encounter is the Geneva Human Rights Committee report on war crimes which is due to be released this September. It will definitely be a weapon with two cutting edges. Forming a coalition government with a powerful section of the SLFP, Ranil will have to enter a pact to protect the Rajapaksas from punishment for war crimes. On the other hand, the Tamil National Alliance, which is also supporting the government, will invariably adopt a very strict stand in respect to the UNHRC report. This makes it clear that the new government of Ranil will be burdened with crises from the very start. At the same the TNA will face enormous pressure from the Tamil masses against collaboration with the UNP-led government, particularly after the recent US announcement that it will support the idea of an ‘internal’ investigation i.e. one conducted by people in the ruling layer who were involved in pursuing the war.

During the past ten years of Mahinda Rajapaksa administration it was very difficult for the class struggle to make headway. The main reason for this was that he used Sinhala racism coupled with an anti-Tamil Tiger stance and also feigned an anti-imperialist position to stifle and suppress the struggles of workers, peasants and students. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party, the ‘Communist’ Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) gave their fullest support to Mahinda’s ‘patriotic’ war. This assisted in spreading Sinhala chauvinism among the working class and within the trade union movement in a virulent form.

It is no exaggeration to say that it was only the United Socialist Party that was active in leading the battle to oppose the suppression carried out by the dictatorial style of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration. In that situation, some of the left took sectarian and ultra-leftist positions during those difficult times. It has to be emphasised that the challenge of playing a vital role in building the strength of working class opposition will unfold before us in the future much more decisively than before.

Another special feature exhibited by the election results is the utter defeat of the former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka. Although his party contested island-wide, it could obtain only 28,587 votes in total. Similarly the sole agent of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalists, the Bodu Bala Sena party (BBS) suffered what was for them a humiliating defeat with only 20,377 votes. In the context of Mahinda Rajapaksa contesting as the popular leader of Sinhala Buddhist forces, there was little space left for Bodu Bala Sena.

Tamil Alliance

In analysing the election results in the North of the country, it can be seen that Tamil people continued to give their votes to the Tamil National Alliance. In the 2010 election, the TNA won 14 seats and this time it increased to 16. It got 515,963 votes – nearly 5% of the total. The Tamil Congress, which is a traditional Tamil party led by Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam, criticised the TNA heavily, on the basis of hard-line Tamil nationalism. However, Gajendra was not able to win a single seat and the total number of votes he polled was 15,022. On the other hand, a group of former LTTE fighters launched a severe attack on the Tamil National Alliance. This group was given considerable publicity by both the Tamil and Sinhala media, but did not get even 2,000 votes.

The TNA was only able to consolidate its power in the North by false promises to the people that they had the ability to solve the national problem through discussion with Ranil. It is not surprising that the Tamil people expect some sort of a freer environment and are weary after experiencing a thirty years long, disastrous and ferocious war. However, it remains to be seen how, in the future, another leader from the Sinhalese elite like Ranil will react to revolts led by Sinhala chauvinists. Provisions in the law such as provincial police powers and the usage and management of land approved by the 13th Amendment to the Northern Provincial Council since the chauvinist elements, including Mahinda Rajapaksa, were strongly opposed to such devolution of power to Tamil people. Even movements like Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), who have claimed to be on the left, are opposed to any devolution of power that Tamils could get under the capitalist system. In such an environment, the problems connected with the national question faced by the Tamil people could again come to the fore and occupy a pivotal position in Sri Lankan politics. The socialist movement, led by the working class, will have to play a key role.

The JVP and the Left

In this parliamentary election, it seems that the JVP has fallen to earth from the skies. On the strength of the huge campaign that the JVP launched, its followers were confident that they would get 20-25 parliamentary seats. But they were able to get only six. They got immense publicity from the media and it was unbelievable to see the amount of commercial advertisements the JVP paid for in the printed and electronic media. The JVP describes their party as a working class, proletarian party but now people have begun to ask how this party gets such an abundant amount of money.

The JVP, which contested on its own in the 2001 election as a single party, was able to win 16 seats. Thereafter, they entered a so-called probationary coalition with the SLFP and became a prop for a capitalist administration. From that point onwards they were engaged in coalition politics – once with Chandrika, with Mahinda Rajapaksa and then with former Army commander, Sarath Fonseka. In this year’s general election they contested alone. The significant characteristic that emerged was that they have become a party that conforms openly to the wishes of the capitalist establishment. This was evident in their election manifesto. During the election period, the JVP got into a position where they were meeting the leading trade and business councils of Sri Lanka and tried to enter into pacts for their the election propaganda.

The Frontline Socialist Party, which is a radical force that broke away from the main body of the JVP, also suffered the same fate as the JVP. During the last presidential election, the left forces were denied the important chance of fielding a common left candidate due to their submission to Sinhala nationalist forces. During this parliamentary election, they behaved as if they were suffering from a sectarian mania. Even though there were differences in the policies of the United Socialist Party and the FSP, for the sake of preventing the division of leftist votes, we suggested a no-contest pact to the FSP. In such a situation, the districts could have been divided out between the two parties and the opportunity would have existed for gathering the leftist votes together. The Peratugami Party (FSP) rejected this offer in a sectarian way. Their idea was to field candidates in all 22 districts and to procure a slot on the national list of MPs from the sum total of the votes they would get. It was actually a blind faith. In the end, the FSP only managed to obtain a total of just over 7,000 votes.

The United Socialist Party selected only five districts to field candidates. The aim was to consolidate socialist campaigning even in a very difficult environment. USP candidates were fielded in Jaffna District, however daunting a task it was, mainly for the purpose of building up the leftist ideology among the Tamil people in the North,. Even though the USP received just 303 votes there, it was a victory for us to be able to convey socialist thinking on the national question in the northern Tamil society. The JVP, which spent a huge amount of money, could obtain only 247 votes in Jaffna. This also may be mainly from the Sinhala voters in Jaffna. The FSP also contested in Jaffna but could obtain only 127 votes there. In Colombo District, the USP obtained 429 votes while the FSP got just a few more – 463. The ‘left’ NSSP, even with the well-known Wickramabahu as the leading candidate, could only get 301 votes in Colombo.

These results show that the left is now in a relatively weak position. Even though the movement has suffered a temporary setback in the electoral sphere, it is only the left and the organised working class that can give leadership for the people’s struggle against the social, political and economic crisis that could unfold in the near future.

The activities of the USP during the ten years of Rajapaksa administration testify to this statement. The pact that was agreed between Ranil Wickramasinghe and the SLFP was a show to cheat the people. Even the decision by Ranil to invite the SLFP to join a so-called National Government is aimed at enabling him to implement his capitalist neo-liberal plan of action. And nothing else.

Big sections of the SLFP are now seen to be ready to accept this pact. What will emerge from this situation will be a war against the working class, poor farmers, youth and students and the Tamil-speaking people in the North and East. In this scenario, the Sinhala opposition group led by Mahinda Rajapaksa could come onto the stage again to destabilise the South along communal lines.

In such an environment, the responsibility for giving leadership to the people should be taken over by the left movement, struggling against, and defeating, communalism and all destructive neo-liberal plans by stepping up the class struggle. It is vital for the United Socialist Party to build up its strength theoretically and organisationally in order to take on these tasks confidently and face up to the challenges ahead.

Final results of the General Election

United National Party: 5,098,916 votes (106 seats)

United People Freedom Alliance: 4,732,664 votes (95 seats)

Tamil National Alliance: 515,963 votes (16 seats)

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP): 543,944 votes (6 seats)

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC): 44,192 votes (1 seat)

Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP):33,481 votes (1 seat)

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