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Issue 54, March 2001

Vote Rigging and Violence

    Failure of the left
    Crisis in the new left
    United Socialist Party

After the most violent elections in its history, Sri Lanka finds itself with an even weaker government. Crisis looms in the form of economic ruin and the ever-present military conflict in the Tamil North. SIRITUNGA JAYASURIYA, general secretary of the United Socialist Party, reports on the current situation.

SRI LANKA IS famous for having election after election. Almost every year one election or another takes place to fool the people. Capitalist leaders in a number of neo-colonial countries have discovered this method to create the illusion that democracy is present. In reality, this is far from true. Sri Lanka has a system of presidential elections, general elections, provincial elections, local government elections and some other elections as well.

The general election in October 2000 has not strengthened the ruling capitalist class. In fact it has deepened its crisis. The People's Alliance (PA), first elected in 1994 on the basis of promises to end the war and bring in big reforms, has again formed the government. This time, however, it was only able to secure a slender majority in parliament with the support of two minority, regional parties. The PA, formed just before the 1994 election, has always been dominated by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by the president, Chandrika Kumaratunga. It also includes the now virtually dead left parties - the formerly Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party. The main opposition party is the right-wing capitalist United National Party (UNP).


The PA managed to win this election with mass-scale rigging and intimidation. Even the election commissioner had to agree to annul the votes of a number of polling stations due to pressure from the opposition. The independent poll-monitoring committee also said in their report that the PA government used the state machinery for its campaign.

This was the most violent election in Sri Lanka, with many street clashes between supporters of the SLFP and the UNP. Over a thousand violent incidents were reported and 86 people killed. Election results show the sharp drop in popular support from when they first came to power. Support for the PA in the 1994 general election was 48.9% and 62.2% in the 1994 presidential election. It dropped to 51.1% in the December 1999 presidential election, and to 45.1% in the October 2000 general election.

This is not the end of the story. What happened in the North, where the war is taking place under occupation by the Sri Lankan Army, is very significant. No-one in Sri Lanka believes that there was even the semblance of a genuine election in the North. In most of this area not a single vote was cast. In other areas, a so-called election was conducted by the army and armed political groups like the EPDP (Eelam People's Democratic Party) who are supporters of the PA. These armed groups prevented people from voting and did not allow other parties' candidates to conduct a campaign.

All the political monitors said that the Jaffna District election should have been cancelled. Yet the election commissioner declared the very people who did the rigging as duly elected members of Parliament! The EPDP - a Tamil political group - has four parliamentary members, the only representatives who got in from Jaffna District. Without these four MPs the PA would not have been able to form a government. Normally, Sri Lanka has a fairly high turnout in the elections - about 70-80%. But the so-called election results of Jaffna give some indication about the situation: Jaffna District total number of voters, 622,331; number of votes polled, 132,730 (21.3%).


top     Failure of the left

ANOTHER SIGNIFICANT FEATURE of the election was the wiping out of the traditional left parties. The LSSP was the first political party in Sri Lankan history, formed in 1935. There was such a strong working-class movement in the past that LSSP subsequently became the main opposition party in the Sri Lankan parliament. This party was formed as a Trotskyist party and was affiliated to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) before 1964. But the result of the class collaborationist, popular-front politics of a succession of opportunist LSSP leaders is that a once strong force has been reduced to nothing.

The LSSP did not win a single seat in October but Chandrika installed the party's leader, Batty Weerakoon, in one of the parliamentary seats that are filled by presidential patronage. The Communist Party (CP), which now probably has less than 100 members, won two seats. They contested the election as part of the PA list, not on a separate CP list, and the two MPs make no claim to be socialist any more. In reality, the CP MPs are indistinguishable from the capitalist SLFP.

In this situation, a political vacuum has been created within the working class and the poor masses who oppose both the capitalist UNP and the SLFP-dominated PA. People do not want to put the UNP back in power, mainly because they still remember the dark days of UNP rule from 1977 to 1994. In 1980 nearly 40,000 workers were sacked following the defeat of the general strike. In 1987-89, more than 100,000 young people were killed when the repressive government of Jayawaradene brutally suppressed the insurgency led by the JVP (Jaítha Vemukthi Peramuna - People's Liberation Front), a Maoist, Sinhala nationalist party.


In October's election, both the UNP and the SLFP/PA, the country's two main capitalist parties, led their campaign on pro-Sinhala communal lines. The PA did not have anything to offer to the people because they had broken all the promises they made before. As a result, the entire election campaign was aimed against the LTTE, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the guerrilla group which has been fighting the Sri Lankan state forces since 1983. Both the SLFP and the UNP waged a communalist, anti-Tamil campaign.

top     Crisis in the new left

BITTER DISILLUSIONMENT with the PA government and continued fear of the UNP has helped revive the JVP, which appeals to a radicalised layer of nationalist youth, mainly in the South. The JVP still mixes 'socialist' language with Sinhala chauvinism and won ten seats in parliament with 5.9% of the popular vote. As a result of the political vacuum, the JVP has been able to win sections of poor workers and poor peasants, allowing JVP leaders to claim they are a 'Marxist' or 'socialist' party. Help for the JVP leaders in manufacturing false socialist credentials has been provided by the NSSP, the Nava (New) Sama Samaja Party, which is affiliated to the USFI.

Over recent years, the NSSP boosted the JVP, helping them cover up their murderous terror politics during 1987-89 - which were directed at trade union and socialist activists, as well as the state - and whitewashing their communal, racist politics. Presenting the JVP as a 'left' party, the NSSP gave unconditional support to their candidate in the December 1999 presidential election.


The left is presented with a political challenge to face up to the JVP which, as a radical youth force expressing the deep anger against the present capitalist system, is naturally pushed towards taking a stand against globalisation. This is reinforced by the country's deep-rooted left tradition and the present lack of a genuine mass left leadership.

The real test for the JVP is the national question. The JVP has opposed the proposed new constitution from a racist position. Genuine Marxists cannot support the proposed constitution, but our opposition is from the opposite direction, ie because it does not guarantee the rights of Tamil-speaking people. The JVP has thoroughly exposed its communal nature. Even though the JVP received 5.9% of the vote in the South, their vote in key Tamil-speaking areas shows that Tamils have no respect for their false socialist politics. In Jaffna it received 0.14%, in Wanni 0.53% and in Batticaloa 0.13%.

This election has created mixed opportunities. The left and the working class have suffered a temporary setback. The key factor in this situation was the breaking up of the New Left Front (NLF) by the NSSP leadership, which has pursued completely opportunistic policies and tactics. The NLF was formed by the NSSP, the United Socialist Party (Sri Lanka section of CWI), the New Democratic Party (NDP - a Maoist Tamil party) and the Diyasa study group (mostly ex-JVP members). Nearly eighteen months ago when the NLF contested seats in provincial elections it won one seat in Colombo District and narrowly missed four seats in other districts. But the NSSP broke the Left Front in an unprincipled attempt to get the chairman's position in the Western Province with the support of the capitalist UNP.


The incident arose from the fact that the PA formed the provincial government of the Western Province, which includes the capital, Colombo, with a number of other groups, although it lacked an overall majority. Attempting to undermine the PA/SLFP, the UNP proposed the leader of the NSSP, Wickrambahu Karunarathna, for the chair of the provincial parliament. Accepting the support of the UNP, and seconded by the JVP, NSSP members campaigned for the chair, without success. This inevitably split the New Left Front.

In last October's election, the NSSP contested Colombo District under the NLF name, but polled very poorly. In April 1999 the NLF polled 9,140 (1.14%) votes, while in October 2000 they got only 3,877 (0.38%) - a drop of nearly 65%. This is a direct result of the NLF being broken. Another factor is that the Tamil people who voted for the left during 1999 have not voted this time because of the NSSP's alliance with the communal JVP.

top     United Socialist Party

THE USP, BASED on Marxist principles, tried unsuccessfully in the election to unite the left on a clear socialist programme. Many opportunistic alliances were formed in order to enter parliament. The USP also faced the serious disadvantage that it was forced to contest the elections as an 'independent group' because the election commissioner refused to recognise it as a party. This meant that USP candidates were identified on ballot papers as 'independent candidate number...' not as 'USP'. (The USP has filed a case in the Supreme Court against that decision.)


The USP contested two districts, Nuraya Eliya, where Tamil-speaking plantation workers live, and Ampara, a Tamil-speaking Muslim area. The USP's main aim was to campaign for the party programme rather than asking for votes and gained 93 votes in Nuraya Eliya and 245 in Ampara District.

Ampara, which includes areas like Pottuvil, is a war zone. The USP comrades organised a public meeting of more than 1,500 people. The size of it took us by surprise - as well as the local police. The UNP could not attract even 500!

During the campaign we put up hundreds of posters, distributed 95,000 leaflets around the country, made four TV broadcasts, and recruited an encouraging batch of new members, nearly all of them young people. Two new party branches have been formed

Though Chandrika has been able to form a new government, nothing is changed in the country except that even more of a burden has fallen on the heads of the poor people. The minority PA/SLFP government will be unstable and probably short-lived. In attempting to shore up its position it has broken all records in appointing 45 members to the new cabinet. India is the largest country in Asia and 64 times the size of Sri Lanka but has only half the number of ministers. Before the election, the PA promised to reduce the number of ministers to no more than 20!

The economic situation is not showing any positive signs. Prices of essential goods are going up. The weak capitalist class cannot find a solution to the national question and the war. And this will have a disastrous effect on the weak economy.


In this situation, the Rs3,000 minimum wage demand campaign which was temporarily stopped just before the election, will start up again. We are discussing in the workplaces about why the left was defeated and how the capitalist crisis is going to develop. We are fighting for the working class and the oppressed Tamil minority to combine to overthrow the capitalists' system. Of course, the working class may need a little time to overcome its defeat. But the capitalist media which says that the left and socialists are finished will see the mighty power of workers demonstrated again in the very near future.

The USP has been vindicated by the current crisis in the country. The economic situation has become dire. Fuel prices have been put up four times in last six months. Bus fares have doubled. Water, electricity and telephone charges have increased by more than 25%. The Sri Lanka rupee has been devalued four times over the last few months and, from 23 January, government has floated the rupee following World Bank demands. This has created a chaotic situation with consumer prices increasing rapidly because Sri Lanka is an import-oriented country.

There has been no opposition from the traditional left which is part of the PA government. The UNP has organised a six-day march from Kandy to Colombo. JVP is trying to appear radical but its propaganda is against giving any concessions to Tamil-speaking people (under the cover of countering division of the country) and is confusing the anti-government positions.


The USP is campaigning for the right of self-determination for the Tamils, as well as against the price rises and corruption in high places. It is calling for a workers' national convention to be convened to call a warning general strike together with mass action of the poor people.

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