Socialism Today   Socialist Party magazine

Sri Lanka elections

ANOTHER ELECTION in Sri Lanka has been fought on the national question and economic stagnation. On 5 December the United National Party (UNP), led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, came to power after the most violent election ever.

Up to 50 people were killed and hundreds injured amid large-scale vote-rigging and intimidation. Nearly 80,000 voters in the Tamil areas of Vanni and Batticaloa in the North and East were prevented from voting for so-called ‘security reasons’. In Kandy district, more than 40,000 votes were annulled. Local elections have now been called for early March. In fact, it seems that the more the parliamentary system is undermined, the more frequently elections take place.

The December general election will also go down in history as the most intensely communal campaign. The People’s Alliance (PA), which led the previous administration under president Chandrika Kumaratunga, and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP – People’s Liberation Front) led the communalism. Neither of these parties address the real problems of the country. The UNP, on the other hand, highlighted the need to end the bitter war between the Sinhala-dominated state, on the one side, and Tamil forces on the other. Up to 60,000 lives have been lost in fighting in the past three decades. The UNP campaigned for a negotiated settlement. Its programme however is completely based on big business interests and can offer no long-term solution, therefore, to the conflict.

This is going to be the first test for Ranil and his government. It has eased the sanctions imposed on Tamil areas, which could improve the economic situation. However, when Chandrika was first elected in 1994, she also implemented similar measures before the situation again deteriorated into war. The PA and JVP have already begun mobilising opposition to planned talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

When the results are analysed they show that the majority of the people rejected the communal campaigns of the PA and JVP. These parties used the state media to claim that Ranil had made a secret pact with Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader, to divide up the country. This bankrupt communalist tactic failed.

The UNP gained because of deep discontent with the PA government, which had also promised to end the war and has failed to stop the worsening of people’s living conditions. We all know, however, that the UNP represents big business and will implement a pro-imperialist programme which will increase the burden to working class and poor peasants still further.

Another significant development was that the Communist Party (CP), which contested the elections on the PA lists, failed to win any seats. Since independence in 1947, the CP has always been represented in parliament up to now. Similarly, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) managed to win just one seat. The LSSP and the traditional left parties are no longer a significant force, having lost their identity as representatives of the working class and poor.

The communal, petit-bourgeois JVP increased its strength from ten MPs to 16. The Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP/NLF – New Labour Front) leaders and Vasudeva Nanayaka with his Democratic and Left Party (which stood as the Democratic and Left Front – DLF), helped to pave the way for the JVP by reinforcing the mistaken view that the JVP is a non-communal and important left force. The JVP used that to attract some workers’ votes.

Against this confusing background, the United Socialist Party (USP – the Sri Lanka section of the CWI) contested nine districts in the country as a workers’ party. The amount of votes received by the USP is significant in view of the fact that the USP did not hold any public meetings and had no paid adverts in the press, radio or television. In some polling districts we got more than the NLF or DLF. In total the USP got 9,457 votes, ending up in tenth-place overall in the whole country, despite the fact that we did not stand in all constituencies. We recruited new members during the campaign.

With the formation of the new government, the capitalist business class has gained renewed confidence. The Colombo stock exchange rose by 40% as an indication of their feelings. The economic situation, however, is dire – set to record its worst performance since independence, according to the Financial Times (20 December).

Ranil has also set up negotiations with the Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, on the Tamil question. But reaching agreement is not going to be easy. The national question in Sri Lanka has developed to a situation where, without autonomy for the North being accepted, the LTTE will not come to talks. The PA has refused to join a national government, but 22 PA MPs went over to the new government, helping it achieve the two-thirds majority it needs to change the constitution and go into talks on devolution.

The working class and the USP have a crucial role to play in the coming period. The left must not repeat the same mistakes that were made during the 1987-89 period, when most left groups backed the capitalist peace initiative. The working class taking an independent stand is very important. Implementing the World Bank’s programme, the UNP will introduce harsh anti-working class measures. In this situation, the USP has a key role to play in the country’s politics in the months ahead.

Siritunga Jayasuriya


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