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Rajapaksa’s defeat offers opportunities for the Left in Sri Lanka

By Peter Main

Despite his characteristic boasting that he would win with ease, Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in the Sri Lankan Presidential election by a substantial margin, 51.3 to 47.6. Good, not because his successor is qualitatively better but because the change of government will mean, at least temporarily, a relaxation of the autocratic rule that has severely limited democratic rights. The working class and its organisations can take advantage of this to organise and mobilise. Rajapaksa’s exit does not automatically mean a sharp change of policy on the island, but it does open a new chapter.

Until last November’s announcement of early elections, the victor, and now President, Maithripala Sirisena, was minister of health in Rajapaksa’s government and that is the first reason why a sharp change is not to be expected.

When he announced his candidacy he made it clear it was because “The entire economy and every aspect of society is controlled by one family”. While undoubtedly true, that was hardly a new development and he had lived with it for many years. More importantly, this was a way of signalling to the Sinhalese chauvinist forces who supported Rajapaksa’s war against the Tamils that there would be no change of policy on the most important question in Sri Lankan society.

The emphasis on the corruption and cronyism of the Rajapaksa administration also made it clear that he was the candidate of the majority of Sri Lanka’s wealthier families who had been frozen out by the Rajapaksa clan. This was the basis for the carefully planned, and highly secret, coalition of parties and interest groups that ensured there was only one major opponent to Rajapaksa in the election. In other words, the election was only about which faction of the bourgeoisie was to get its hands on the wealth of the country. That is the other reason why no great change is to be expected.

Within hours of the announcement of his candidacy, other senior figures from the government, “crossed the floor” to join the opposition, to be followed by a steady stream of new defectors throughout the election campaign. In a country where one family really did control everything, deserters from government need to be very sure that they will be rewarded for their disloyalty. There can be little doubt that their expectations were underwritten by US support for the removal of Rajapaksa, who was increasingly seen as too reliant on China for the financing of reconstruction and development projects. In the context of increasing inter-imperialist rivalry, therefore, the change of government is significant.

Given the structure of Sri Lanka’s population, only having the support of sections of the Sinhalese bourgeoisie would not have been enough to ensure victory for Sirisena. In order to gain the backing of wider layers of society and, especially, the political leaders of the Tamil and Muslim minorities, he promised not only early elections, which would not be manipulated by the previous administration, but also the repeal of constitutional changes that had given the Presidency huge executive power. He did not, however, promise any measures that might be interpreted as concessions to greater autonomy for the Tamil or Muslim districts.

It remains to be seen whether the pre-election promises will be kept, particularly with regard to Presidential powers, but parliamentary elections are in Sirisena’s interest and are scheduled for April 23rd. They will undoubtedly be held in very different circumstances from those in 2010 when, in the aftermath of the defeat of the Tamil independence movement, Rajapaksa rode a wave of Sinhalese chauvinism, reinforced by a totally subservient media, and gained a more than two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The Left and the elections

Given the presentation of Sirisena as the “Common Opposition Candidate”, and his backing by substantial interest groups, not to mention international powers, it was not surprising that the election turned into a two horse race. As the results show, “other candidates” in total received just 1.1 percent of the votes cast.

With such small numbers, there is little to be gained from attempts at detailed analysis of individual candidates’ votes. We have already condemned the unprincipled position of the Sri Lankan section of the Fourth International, the Nava Sama Samaj Party, NSSP, which called for a vote for Sirisena. Vickramabahu Karunarathne, of the NSSP, justified this by saying that it was necessary for working class forces to unite even with bourgeois parties against Rajapaksa because his was an increasingly “fascist” government.

This is a misrepresentation of the united front tactic. Of course it is permissible to unite with anyone in practical actions, demonstrations, strikes, occupations and so on, in defence of democratic rights or against particularly repressive legislation like the Prevention of Terror Act. If bourgeois forces were prepared to support such actions, we would not reject them, but we did not see them rushing to oppose Rajapaksa on those issues.

To equate such tactical alliances (unlikely as they are anyway) with proposing that the working class should support one bourgeois party against another for government is a gross misleadership. There can never be an agreement on government between the working class and any of its exploiters. What the NSSP has done, insofar as it has any influence, is facilitate the smooth transfer of power from one bourgeois faction to another.

Whatever his election promises, Sirisena now has a “democratic mandate” to wield exactly the same Presidential powers as Rajapaksa had. Karunarathne may now say that, having got rid of Rajapaksa, the working class and the oppressed minorities must be free to fight for their own interests but we guarantee that, if they do, Sirisena will use all his powers against them, and the supposed Trotskyists of the NSSP will have helped him.

In the elections, there were candidates representing three ostensibly revolutionary parties; the Socialist Equality Party (International Committee of the Fourth International) the United Socialist Party (Committee for a Workers’ International) and the Frontline Socialist Party, who stood with the backing of the “Left Front”. Across the island, these candidates got quite similar results; the FSP 9,941, the USP, 8,840, for example. The significance of this is that the FSP is a very much bigger organisation than either SEP or USP. When it split from the JVP, it claimed some 15,000 members so the results suggest it was not even able to convince its own members to vote for its candidate.

The Socialist Party of Sri Lanka, SPSL, the section of the League for the Fifth International, gave critical support to the FSP candidate who was standing as the candidate of the Left Front, an electoral alliance that also included those NSSP members who did not support Sirisena, as well as Maoists and non-aligned lefts. The attempt to build a single electoral campaign as a clear, socialist, alternative to the candidate of the bourgeois opposition was a worthwhile initiative, understood as part of a longer term project to overcome the disintegration of the Left in Sri Lanka. However, if that project is to make any progress, lessons will have to be learnt from the experience of the campaign.

The very low level of support for any of the candidates of the Left groups, even given the rather artificial circumstances of only one “main” opposition candidate, cannot be ignored. For comparison, Siritunga Jayasuriya of the USP gained 35,425 votes in 2005. That alone underlines the urgent need to overcome the fragmentation of the Left. However, the results also show that, despite all the disadvantages, nearly 30,000 voters did vote for candidates who declared themselves as socialist and insisted that the working class and oppressed of Sri Lanka should not side with either of the bourgeois candidates.

Were those 30,000 supporters of working class independence organised around a common programme, fighting for the needs of the workers and oppressed in the trades unions, women’s organisations, student unions and community campaigns, week in and week out, not just at election times, they would surely have an impact far greater than mere votes would suggest.

The Left Front remains a forum within which important steps towards that goal can be taken. The programme upon which its candidate stood represented a major advance and a clear move to the left by the FSP, the biggest component of the Left Front. Certainly, we believe it also had very important weaknesses, particularly regarding the state and the right of self-determination of the Tamils but, in the interest of continuing the struggle for principled positions on those issues, we were prepared to give critical support to the campaign.

We, therefore, disagreed with the decisions of the NSSP and USP to oppose the Left Front candidacy and stand their own candidates. The USP has claimed that this was to enable it to campaign with a principled position of support for self determination of the Tamils but this apparently sound argument is fundamentally undermined by the fact that for the last two years their candidate, Siritunga Jayasuriya has been sharing “anti-Rajapaksa” platforms with Ranil Wickremasinghe, the leader of the main bourgeois party, the UNP. The actual political practice of the USP, then, has been essentially the same as the NSSP; support for the “Common Opposition Candidate”.

In the three months leading up to the parliamentary elections, Sri Lankan politics will be more open and less subject to state repression than they have been for many years. The first priority in this period should be the organisation and mobilisation of the working class and the oppressed minorities to demand their needs are met, both economically and politically. The organisations within the Left Front, in particular, should take the lead in promoting united campaigns, drawing in unions and community organisations and, wherever, possible forming new organisations to coordinate action.

This work is essential not only because of what can be gained in the short term but because of its potential longer term role in advancing workers’ interests under whatever government comes to office after April 23rd.

At the same time, the Left Front needs to continue its own work to clarify its programme while standing candidates for that election, learning from the experience, positive and negative, of the Presidential election and building its own organisation across the island. In that way, the opportunities offered by the fall of Rajapaksa can be turned into concrete advances for the Left on the road to the building of a new workers’ party in Sri Lanka.

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