The Sri Lankan presidential election, scheduled for 16 November, is taking place at a time when the country is going through a major political and economic crisis. The government is proving it has no solutions to the problems of young people, of workers and of the poor and oppressed people in the country. Economic growth fell to 2.5% in May this year, the lowest in 18 years. The unstable ruling coalition is faced with mounting opposition to its IMF-led privatisation programme and to corruption which is rife in the country.
Sri Lanka has taken its place among all the parts of the world where the economic and social crisis is now expressed in political crisis too. A record high number of candidates is standing – but with a record low number of answers for the suffering masses. Instead they appeal to separate identities such as ethnicity and religion– a threat to workers’ ability to unite and defend their rights and conditions that must not go unchallenged.
All the capitalist parties are divided and infighting within them is commonplace. The main capitalist party – the United National Party (UNP) – could not even come to an agreement on who would be their candidate until just before the deadline for nominations. Their chosen candidate, Sajith Premadasa (son of ex-President Ranasinghe Premadasa), is enormously unpopular with all minority groups in Sri Lanka. Despite some big rallies being organised by the UNP to show their strength, it is unlikely that they will be able to galvanise votes as many votes as they did in 2015.
For the first time in its history, the other main capitalist party – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – has failed to come out with a candidate. Instead it has endorsed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the candidate for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). The SLPP is a new party founded by the clan of former president-dictator, Mahinda Rajapaksa following his defeat in the 2015 election after the bloody end to the country’s 30 year civil war. The Rajapaksa clan still holds membership and positions within the SLFP but have established a party of their own to counter the opposition to them that exists within the SLFP and in order to stand in elections. This is seen as the end of the road for the SLFP by many, including former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, the daughter of the founder of the SLFP.
None of the main parties has anything to offer voters that will improve their falling living standards. Instead of policies that address those conditions, both candidates brandish their ‘Sinhala nationalist’ credentials. Sinhala Buddhist nationalism escalated following the Easter bombing of Christian churches by self-confessed Muslim reactionaries. That event came as an enormous shock to all communities in Sri Lanka.
The SLPP is trying to capitalise on this communal wave to propagate the idea that it could win the election solely based on ‘Sinhala votes’. Gotabaya presents himself as a “strong man” who won the war against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), when he was Defence Minister, and will sort out the new security problems that the country is facing. The UNP candidate on the other hand is doing everything to portray himself as a better ‘Sinhala nationalist’ than Gotabaya.
Both candidates have rejected all proposals put forward by the Tamil Parties in the North and East of the island in terms of achieving even meagre democratic demands. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – the main Tamil nationalist right-wing party – has up until now given full support to the UNP government. But they cannot do that now as they fear a backlash from their Tamil voters. The TNA is now left with the dilemma of not being able to support any candidates. However, they are most likely to carry on supporting their class ally in parliament – the UNP – rather than offer any way forward for the oppressed Tamils.
The other Tamil nationalist party – the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) – has called for a boycott of the election. At a time when Tamil voters are looking for a clear alternative, none of the Tamil parties has come forward to provide one. Instead the TNA has made every possible effort to distance itself from the one prominent Tamil politician, MK Sivajilingam, who has put himself forward as a presidential candidate. He has been side-lined by the TNA leaders and is standing as an independent.
MLAM Hizbullah is also standing as an independent, putting himself forward as a candidate for Muslims, just as Sivajilingam presents himself as a candidate for Tamils. Both lack any clear programme and strategy for how they will advance the rights of these communities.
Nothing to offer
Among the record number of 35 candidates standing in the election, only one candidate – Siritunga Jayasuriya of the United Socialist Party (USP) is willing or capable of addressing the problems faced by Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala workers, youth and poor.
Hizbullah, well-known for his hard-line right-wing position on many issues, is also known for his anti-Tamil rhetoric. He has presented himself as the only defender of the Muslim population which is under historic attack. Poor Muslims have been let down by all the Muslim leaders, particularly after the Easter bombing when the whole community came under enormous pressure. Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) has continued its alliance with the UNP and is likely to continue that support. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the dominant party in the Hill Country area of poor Tamil tea plantation workers, has already announced that it will support Gotabaya, with the promise of delivering wages of 1,000 rupees per day– which was a part of the never-realised ‘hundred-day’ programme of reforms of the UNP at the last general election.
The TNA and SLMC leaders, as well as many liberal so-called intellectuals, argue that the action of Sivajilingam, Hizbullah and the CWC will divide the vote and will only increase the chance of victory for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. However, they fail to recognise the discontent that exists on the ground against all parties.
There is a vital need for building an independent working class and poor people’s organisation offering a programme for fighting back which is capable of addressing the national aspirations of the war-suffering Tamils, fighting for the religious and other democratic rights of the Muslims and standing firm on improving the conditions for all Sinhala workers and poor. Such an organisation, armed with socialist policies, can galvanise the masses and can halt the re-emergence of the war-criminal Rajapaksa family. The ‘lesser evil’ approach of supporting Sajith Premadasa offers only a blind alley – if he managed to win the election.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) claims to be a Marxist organisation. But it limits its programme and focuses on anti-corruption and national unity without pointing workers and poor people in the direction of conducting their own struggle. The JVP’s electoral support, however, seems to have been able to grow in the current confused situation – particularly among middle class youth. This is largely down to them standing against the UNP’s push for privatisation in the education and health sector. However they also pander to the idea of a ‘Sinhala nationalist’ vote base. They have not changed their position in relation to the Tamil national question which means dividing the north and east and, up until now, they have not stated their position publicly regarding this.
The breakaway group from the JVP – the Front Line Socialist Party (FLSP) is also fielding a candidate in this election. They, too, fall short of providing a united working class programme to address the problems faced by the various oppressed sections in Sri Lanka. In addition to economic demands, standing firm on the democratic and national demands of Tamils and Muslims is vital. Without this, no ‘national unity’ of the working class is possible.
The United Socialist Party – the Sri Lankan section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) – has an impeccable history of standing up for all democratic rights, including the national rights of the Tamils. The USP has always argued for a left opposition to be built in Sri Lanka on a principled basis. However, today this is harder than ever because most of the previously left forces have succumbed to the polarised situation that exists now.
The USP has put forward Siritunga Jayasuriya as a candidate in this election mainly to advance and discuss a programme that can prepare the ground for an independent working class mass organisation which is capable of bringing together all oppressed sections of society in Sri Lanka for a fight to end the rotten system of capitalism.
None of the capitalist parties offers any solutions to the problems that workers and all the oppressed masses face. While we wage battles to win all our immediate demands, we must also build the struggle to completely end the capitalist system and to create a better society for all. The creation of a democratic socialist society through nationalisation under workers’ control and management will enable the workers to plan the resources of Sri Lanka to the benefit of all workers and poor people.
All the nationalities in Sri Lanka and in South Asia can come forward on a voluntary basis to be part of a confederation of nations to be organised through a democratic plan for the economy to meet the needs of the many millions in the region. While standing firm to build a struggle to end capitalism and bring about socialist change, the USP also puts forward a number of immediate, crucial demands:
The USP programme includes demands for:
- Reversing all the privatisation that has been started. Cancellation of all debts of farmers and fisherman. Increase subsidies for poor farmers and fishermen.
- Increased wages for all, including workers in the private sector. A trade union struggle for a minimum living wage of 40,000 rupees a month for all workers and a 35-hour week.
- Equal wage rights and all other rights for women. For full rights for LGBTQ+ people, including marriage rights. A struggle to end all forms of oppression
- Increasing investment in public services, which are vital to improve the lives of the millions, not the millionaires. Money spent on national security and defence (which has gone up since the end of the war) should be diverted into public investment as a start. A minimum of 6% of GDP should be allocated for education while preserving all nationalised services.
- All key industries to be nationalised under democratic workers’ control and management .
- Abolish all repressive laws, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act immediately.
Getting rid of the capitalist regime means challenging the whole class and caste system. It is based on launching the call for the setting up of a revolutionary constituent assembly – revolutionary in the sense of being part of a mass struggle for a different society. This would need to be constituted through elections at a local, workplace, neighbourhood and regional level, organised by democratically-elected representatives of workers, peasants and poor people from all sections of society.
Such an assembly would not use the power of the majority to outweigh the genuine demands of any other oppressed section of society. Instead, it would aim to find acceptable solutions, including meeting the national aspirations of the Tamils. The right to self-determination for the Tamil-speaking people must be defended if we are to forge class unity.
The USP stands for the creation of a democratically-planned socialist society. It does not see the problems that the wider masses are facing in isolation. Every oppression and attack on the workers and poor is connected to the very nature of the capitalist system. It must be ended by decisive action of the organised and united workers.
Hence, the USP urges everyone who stands in opposition to the rotten attack on our conditions to come forward and unite in the battle that is opening up. Whatever may be the result of the presidential election, we will have to be fighting to defend our conditions as soon as the election is over. Let us come forward now to start that process.