Sri Lanka election: Rajapaksa’s dynasty consolidates power

The Rajapaksa family has consolidated more power following the election in Sri Lanka which concluded on 5 August. Despite the coronavirus crisis, and restrictions on social mobility, around a 70% voter turnout was registered. Overall the pro capitalist parties won the vast majority of the seats in the parliament. Rajapaksa’s family’s party – the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – won 145 seats (59.09%) out of the 225 seat parliament, falling short of a two thirds majority by six seats. However they have taken no time in forming the two thirds majority government, bringing together their other close allies.

The main capitalist opposition party was divided prior to the election. Its 2019 presidential candidate, Sajith Premedasa, left the United National Party (UNP) and went into the parliament election with the newly formed party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). He finished second, winning 54 seats (23.90%). The UNP, which stood separately, could not win a single seat and gained only 2.15% of the vote, coming behind the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) and the leading Tamil party Tamil National Alliance (TNA). But it managed to get one seat allocated through national list.

The JVP, the liberal Sinhala nationalist party that claimed to be Marxist, lost three out of six seats they held in the previous parliament and saw their votes reduced, particularly in the rural south. The SLPP this time incorporated their allies such as the Ceylon Workers Congress from the hill country, which won significant votes of hill country workers. Their allies in the north also made significant gains. The former paramilitary organisation Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), now a close ally of SLPP, won two seats in the north. Its leading candidate gained more votes than the majority of the other Tamil party candidates. Another seat was won by SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), whose only candidate to win was a Tamil candidate, though he is also very close ally of SLPP. Even in the east a Tamil candidate stood for SLPP won a seat.

The TNA is still the main party in the north east with ten seats. However TNA’s vote fell sharply this time with a loss of six seats and the main leading candidates also lost. In the east significant gains were made by Tamil Makkal Viduthalaip Pulikal (TMVP), a party of a former member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who split with them during 2004. He managed to get more votes than TNA in one of the areas where its leader won the seat despite him being in prison. They have also been close allies of the Rajapaksa family in the past and this is likely to continue. SLPP also gained significant Muslim votes, as a number of candidates collaborated with SLPP. Tamil nationalists in the north also emerged strongly in this election as two seats were gained by Tamil Makkal Kootani (TMK), a newly formed party of the former chief minister of the northern province and the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF).

Lack of political representation

SLPP emerged out of the major crisis that Sri Lanka is facing at the moment. Economic instability and historically worsening conditions has led to major political instability and the crisis of political representation. Two traditionally strong parties – the UNP and SLFP – are fully divided and their main forces are now split among the new parties. SLPP is in effect a Rajapaksa family party. The son of the former prime minister Premadasa also wants make the SJP into a Premadasa family party. Similarly there are lots of fractionalisation that has taken place in the north and east. All the parties in the north, east and the hill country limit themselves to regional politics and are fighting to maintain their support, based on nationalism, religion and even caste. The Rajapaksa family presents itself as a ‘strong’ force that can pull the country out of the worsening conditions – and using the victory over LTTE in the past managed to consolidate southern vote base. The lack of opposition – and the UNP-led attack on working conditions and on public services, along with corruption scandals aided this process. The Rajapaksa family boasted in the past that they don’t need Tamil votes to rule the country, had also made accusations against their opposition that they are trying to “divide the county” or “sell the country” to outside forces. They accused the separatists of trying to achieve through ballots what they could not achieve through bullets. Threats like this and various lies are spread by the SLPP and the majority media who are in support of them.

Though the SLPP government appears to be strong and unshakable at this stage, it is inherently very weak. This government will quickly come into confrontation with majority of the workers and poor in the country. That has a potential of shattering the domination of the Rajapaksa family.

There is no hope of an immediate recovery or return to normality from the current crisis in Sri Lanka. Though the Sri Lankan economy is small (around $90 billion GDP), its accumulated debt is very high (around $52 billion – around 80% of GDP). As its tourism revenue is shattered by the corona crisis, the Sri Lankan economy has become more and more debt dependent. Sri Lanka is also locked in with emerging sharp geopolitical situation in Asia. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Chinese loans is what is so far holding the economy together. It is no secret that the Chinese government has funded the Rajapaksa family in the past and their link is likely to continue. But it will be wrong to assume that the current regime will be fully dragged into a bloc with China. Gotabaya Rajapaksa indicated that they will not take a clear side, despite going along with China-led projects and protecting Chinese interests in the country, and also voting with China at the United Nations to defend their position regarding Hong Kong. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi who phoned to congratulate the Rajapaksa’s, even before the results were officially announced, continues to contest their interest in Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksa government will continue to maintain its relationship with the IMF and the World Bank despite some of their ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric during the election. Balancing between these powers means that the economic policies will continue to be dominated by their interests, as was the case in the past with UNP-led governments.

This means attacks on labour laws and public services will likely to continue, if not get worse. Though some of these attacks initiated by the UNP were paused for the moment, none of the UNP-led policies are cancelled – and are likely to be implemented though back doors. In effect, their economic policy is not much different from that of the UNP. However they differ in how these anti-worker, anti-poor policies are implemented. The lack of transparency and dictatorial methods of the Rajapaksa family is well known to all. Various democratic rights will come under attack, as this family further tighten their grip on power. In order to facilitate this process they use the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism to consolidate the support base.

They have already proposed that the constitution will be changed. It is important to note that every time the constitution is changed in Sri Lanka, it has primarily consolidated the ruling party’s grip on power (such as the establishment of executive presidency in 1978 which aided the continued domination of UNP for a period). Establishing political power for Buddhist council, gerrymandering to reduce the political representation of ethnic and religious minority parties, abolishment of even the meagre rights that the provinces has are expected to be part of the new constitutional proposals. They have repeated many times in their campaign and previously that the Buddhism and Sinhala language will be given dominant position in the new constitution. Along with this they are likely to continue to crush any opposition that can emerge. Solidarity protests with the international movement of Black Lives Matter held outside the US embassy, was brutally attacked and supressed by the government. More of this, including the banning of various organisations is likely to continue (already the government want to re-establish their ban on various Tamil diaspora organisations). In the name of “patriotism” new laws could seriously curtain freedom of speech, press freedom and right to assembly. With their draconian methods the Sri Lankan government will be dragged towards dictatorship – with a thin veneer of democracy. Already the military is playing more and more of a public role and this is expected to continue and increase. Sinhala workers and the poor will soon come across this bogus propaganda, that these efforts are beneficiary for them as they are confronted with the stark economic conditions that are developing. There is almost certainly a discontent that will develop out of that.

The fall of TNA, the main Tamil party, is mainly due to its past collaboration with the capitalist UNP government. Not only did they fail to deliver on any of their economic demands during their collaboration, in the so called “good governance”, but also some leaders came out openly against the national aspiration of the Tamil speaking masses. As a result, key leaders lost and others have narrowly won. In the past they have argued again and again for support for the UNP and promised that something good will come out of it. It is this collaboration with the southern government that created massive discontent among significant section of Tamils. Others who had been taken into this argument do not see the point in voting for TNA while their allies are not in control in the south. TNA’s vote loss was split among those who argued for collaboration with the south to bring economic benefits and those radical Tamil nationalists who saw TNA as selling out to the south.

Another important factor is the internal split that exists within the TNA. TNA candidates have attacked each other throughout the election campaign. The conflict is between the so called ‘moderate’ liberal wing that wants collaborative politics with the south – even sharing ministerial posts under Rajapaksa and the Tamil nationalist wing that want the TNA to stand independently from the southern government. This clash came to the fore in the “chavakachcheri incident” where Sasikala Raviraj (wife of former a parliamentarian who was murdered – believed to be by Rajapaksa forces) accused openly that she was denied her parliamentary position due to corruption, particularly to let one of the key leaders of TNA, Sumanthiran to be declared winner. Some of the press in the south reported this wrongly and it’s resulted in a lack of understanding of the proportional system – as the preference votes transferring had changed the outcome. However they fail to report the accusation of corruption that had taken place in the Kilinchchi area – where allegedly Sumanthiran’s allies involvement delayed the result in number of areas. Consequently, the result was announced following a huge delay that led to this suspicion. Similarly in the south there are disputes and demand for re-count is taking place. However the chavakachcheri incident reflects much more of the process that had now developed in the north and parts of the east.

Self determination

Though all Tamil parties are claiming to stand for the right to self-determination formally, none of them have put forward any clear view of what they mean by this or – any strategy to achieve national rights. Deteriorating conditions and the authoritarian regimes in the south had contributed to the growth of Tamil nationalism, particularly among the well-to-do families concentrated in the cities. Hence those who argue for Tamil nationalism increased their strength in these areas. While in poor areas the demand for economic well-being dominated. TNA in effect split by this process. This process that existed for a long time had now come to the fore more as these wings are more and more polarised. It should be noted that the Tamil nationalist parties that gained two seats did not get their main vote from poor areas. While leaning on petit-bourgeois forces and the small middle class that emerged, they fail to address the acute problems that the poor are facing. Some Tamil areas are the most poor in the whole country. None of them had any answer to many protests that had emerged in recent past – demanding the release of political prisoners, solution to the disappeared and so on. They also do not have any position on how best they would oppose the coming dictatorial constitution or any actions that are taken by the southern government. Mere rhetoric of ‘nationhood’ is not enough to win the wider masses. At the same they are likely to grow, given the radicalisation taking place, particularly among youth.

It is a vital need that a mass platform is formed with the clear perspective and strategy that can involve all the workers and poor, in the north, east, south and the hill country. Collaboration with southern governments will not result in substantial gains for the poor. At the same time there should not be any illusion that external forces such as the so called ‘international community’ will come to the aid of most oppressed sections in Sri Lanka. We must aim to build our strength in all parts of Sri Lanka.

Though the SLPP is the only party that won votes directly and indirectly from all parts of Sri Lanka, it is in no way a reflection that this party become truly national party. In fact there is no such party that exists in Sri Lanka right now. Votes and seats gained by SLPP in the hill country and north and east are through regional parties who have a traditional vote base. In fact what is still reflected in the vote (like the past parliamentary and presidential elections) is that the country is more divided than ever. This division is likely to sharpen in the coming period. Various divisions that exist in the society will be used by various forces to establish their own grip in power, rather than deliver the need of the poor masses. We must oppose such bogus politics and come forward to build our own independent force.

Unfortunately, the left in Sri Laanka, once a strong force, is now fractured and disintegrated. The rump of the LSSP (Lanka Sama Samaja Party) and the Communist Party are fully integrated with the Rajapaksa family party – the SLPP. The JVP who claimed they would take power by 2020 in the recent past have now been reduced to their liberal and petit-bourgeois supporters – and to one or two key areas and in Colombo. The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), a split away from the JVP, won 14,522 votes (it stood in all parts of Sri Lanka). Despite the good campaign and some good programme put forward, they failed to have a breakthrough in areas where the JVP had significant control in the past. A semi-Maoist outfit that stood as independents gained 5,492 votes. Vikramabahu Karunaratne from the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) submerged himself proudly with the capitalist UNP, at a time when even UNP voters from poor areas are deserting them. The United Socialist Party (USP) separated from Vikramabahu in late 1980s, through a major debate that opened up at that time. Bahu’s search for shortcuts and his trajectory to end up in a capitalist wing was clear even then – when Bahu indirectly defended the role of India at that time. The USP stood only in three places and won 1,189 votes.

The decline of electoral representation for the left started with the collaboration of the LSSP in the government that began in 1964. However the defeat of the general strike in the 1980, continued attacks by the government, war, and the setback in consciousness are among various factors that continue to be significant. However it is important to note that the number of votes obtained in this election is not a full reflection of the strength and character of these organisations. The USP, despite being a small force, had led many campaign activities of historical importance. During the last Rajapaksa period the USP played a leading role in defending democratic rights. It played a role in establishing the Civil Monitoring Commission (CMC), an organisation that played a part in exposing the undemocratic nature of Rajapaksa regime. This led to the formation of the ‘freedom platform’ that eventually led to the defeat of Rajapaksa in 2015. A similar process needs to be initiated now. But the majority of these left organisations did not take part in such a process. Some, due to their sectarian view, but also due to their position on national question. It is not an exaggeration to say that the USP is the only party in the country to advocate a Leninist view on the national question and continue to bravely put forward that position. FSP (Frontline Socialist Party) leaders expected to win a seat in the election came nowhere near – and got poor votes in Tamil areas. Unless their position on national question is changed it is unlikely that they will get the support of Tamil workers and poor.

The position on national question remained an Achilles heel for many of these organisations. The process that is developing in the north should not be ignored. It is wrong for any organisation claiming to be ‘Marxist’ to appeal for support on any identity basis either it be ethnic, religion or caste. Indian/Sri Lankan government supporting forces have been whipping up propaganda on the basis of caste and religious for some time, to establish themselves as counterposing Tamil nationalism. Tamil nationalist forces on the other hand had ignored the plight of the most oppressed sections, and various forms of oppression that exist within society (caste-based, gender-based discrimination). This helps the process of divide and rule. Socialists cannot fall into this trap, but must stand firm to unite the masses on a principled basis. This includes standing firm for all democratic rights including national rights and mobilising against all oppressions, with the view of joining these fights to create a socialist planned economy that can get rid of all oppression. Such a mass platform must be built in Sri Lanka now.

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