Dramatic political upheavals are the order of the day in the era of capitalist crisis and that is what has taken place in Sri Lanka – but with special island characteristics. Former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, known as the “butcher of the Tamils”, staged a comeback, confounding all expectations. This is, first and foremost, a reflection of the absence of an anti-capitalist, anti-war alternative. In that situation, Trump-like, Rajapaksa has played the anti-imperialist card, using populist slogans against the incumbent obedient servants of the IMF.

For the first time since the end of the war in 2009, local elections were held throughout Sri Lanka on 10 February. This was also the first election held under the new mixed electoral system, introduced in 2012, whereby 60% of the members are elected by a first-past-the-post voting system and the remaining are chosen from a closed list provided by the parties, based on proportional representation. The number of local authorities and electable council seats was almost doubled. In fact, this was the largest election in Sri Lanka’s history, electing 8,293 members for 340 municipal councils, urban councils, and divisional councils.

The backdrop to the election is major crisis in the Sri Lankan economy and political system. The 2015 presidential election resulted in the defeat of the dictatorial incumbent, Rajapaksa. It was not only the war crime accusations, corruption charges, but the Rajapaksa family also accused of nepotism and killing of anyone who dare to oppose them. The Rajapaksa family is directly linked to the killing of two well-known journalists, Lasantha Wikramatunga and Prageeth Eknaligoda. Under their reign, many fascistic small groups emerged in the south that attacked the rights of Muslims in the country. Rajapaksa’s dictatorial rule alienated Tamils, Muslims and significant parts of the southern population. Hence his electoral defeat created a certain hope among many that conditions would improve. The so-called ‘good governance’ (yahapalayanaya) government brought together the pro-capitalist United National Party (UNP) and a section of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).However, it failed to live up to any of the many promises that were made to secure the election. A ‘hundred-day programme’ promised pay rises and the abolition of the executive presidency. It brought the coalition to power but since then neoliberal policies at the behest of the IMF have been the order of the day. 

The chaos that ensued exposed the capitalist UNP-led government as even greedier for money and power than what it replaced. Corruption scandals involving central bank bonds caused outrage. At the same time, the UNP aimed to dismantle workers’ hard-won rights. However its attempt to privatise education was met with vicious opposition from the working class. But the SLFP, under president Maithripala Sirisena, stood by this UNP economic offensive. Although Sirisena was forced to intervene at times, there was no clear-cut challenge from inside parliament. In fact, full support came from the official opposition, headed by the Tamil party, Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Sambanthan, the TNA’s leader, pledged full support for the UNP’s budget and promised to fully support the new constitutional reforms proposed by the UNP. Even the Janatha Vimukthi peramuna (JVP), which considers itself to be on the left, did not provide any real opposition. The JVP hides its Sinhala nationalism and chauvinism behind Marxist rhetoric. They not only failed to challenge the UNP, but at times came in support for the UNP, voting with the government in parliament.

Lack of alternative and emergence of populism

The massive anger that has mounted throughout the country did find some expression in the local elections but in a very distorted way. In the south, the Rajapaksa family faces war crimes accusations and corruption charges. But their continued Sinhala nationalist propaganda helps them maintain their base of support. On the other side, Maithri-Ranil attempted to disguise their neoliberal policies with the ‘Mahinda threat’, but this did not work. Instead it was used by Mahinda Rajapaksa to strengthen his position. Following the shock result of 2015, Mahinda’s base was in tatters and family members were fleeing the country in fear. But they were allowed to re-group and strengthen their position. Apart from token threats of arrest or court cases here and there, no substantial action was taken to counter their influence.

The Sinhala Buddhist nationalist base that supported Mahinda Rajapaksa was also not challenged. Even when the likes of the hard-line Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS), a semi-fascist Sinhala nationalist group, slowly resurfaced, attacking the Muslim minority, in particular, the government made no attempt to counter it. So the Rajapaksas’ formed alliances and continued to organise mass meetings, thereby maintaining their base. The May Day event organised by these war criminals last year was one of the largest in recent Sri Lankan history. Perhaps most significant is the way that Mahinda and co took advantage of the situation to raise social issues in a populist way. Within the SLFP they rebuilt their strength too. Despite being the SLFP leader, Maithri was not able to stop Mahinda’s family forming both political and non-political organisations that rivalled the SLFP – from within the SLFP. Maithri made some threats but was not able to stop Mahinda or strip him of his SLFP membership, even when he formed a new formation called the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and stood against the SFLP!

With a new symbol, new colour, new electoral name, Mahinda managed to maintain his support among SLFP party members and among his traditional supporters in the recent elections. The SLPP won 44.65% of the vote, capturing 231 local authorities, with 3,369 council members. This result was not expected by many as a UNP victory was widely predicted. There was an assumption that the UNP would somehow get away with its neoliberal policies and there would be a fight between Maithri and Mahinda for second place. But the election result confounded all expectations with a crushing defeat for Maithiripala’s pro-capitalist UPFA (United People Freedom Alliance), capturing just nine local bodies (UPFA 7 and SLFP 2).

The UNP came second, winning 34 local bodies, despite getting 32.64% votes. With 6.27% of the vote JVP also threaten to challenge the UPFA/SLFP which got 13.8% of the vote. But the JVP propaganda that they will capture power by 2020 and this election will be the start of that process, has blown back in their faces. The JVP did not put forward any programme or slogan to challenge the capitalist system, as such. Their message was a soft anti-corruption message, asking voters to vote for them if they want to get rid of corruption. Despite the increased electoral seats and spending, they have not made the significant gain they hoped for.

This dramatic defeat for the government has highlighted the victory of Mahinda even more. However, in terms of the vote base, nothing much has changed since 2015 for Mahinda Rajapaksa. In fact, Mahinda lost over a million votes on his 2015 vote. The local election result is still not a majority win for Mahinda. However the mood in the south had swung towards the SLPP. Many SLFP leading members are likely to go back to Mahinda. Already the CWC (Ceylon Workers Congress) leader, A Thondaman, announced that he would form an alliance with the SLPP in local bodies in the hill country, despite standing in the election with Maithri’s alliance. Many of Maithri’s close allies are expected to desert him. Sensing this weakness, Mahinda is already preparing to recapture the SLFP. His campaign for the SLFP leadership and leader of the opposition has already begun.

Unsurprisingly the UNP has been thrown into crisis following the election. There is an attempt to remove Ranil as leader and to force Maithri to appoint a new prime minister. Although Maithri and Ranil met after the election and announced that their collaboration and government will continue, it is clear that it will be a crisis-ridden government. Mahinda’s opposition to the proposed new constitutional changes is further strengthened by the result. The government is hanging by a thread and will face crisis after crisis.

Setback for Tamil nationalist party in North

The main Tamil pro-capitalist party, Ilangai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) – a federal based party and the main constituent of the TNA – also suffered a significant step back in the election. For the first time no Tamil party was able to enjoy absolute control of Tamil votes. A relatively new party, the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), and the pro-Mahinda and ex-paramilitary group, Eelam People’s Democratic Front (EPDP), emerged as significant forces in the north. In addition the UNP also increased its votes. The TNA’s close collaboration with the UNP-led government is seen by many Tamils as gross betrayal. Not only was some of the traditional vote base of the TNA destroyed, but the UNP was strengthened in Tamil areas.

The TNPF, on the other hand, was almost on an equal footing with the EPDP, and failed to provide a clear alternative. Despite Tamil nationalist rhetoric, they failed to come out with a clear social- economic programme that offered a way for the Tamil-speaking people to imagine an end to the oppression they face. Tamils voted en-mass for TNA in the past not because they supported TNA’s right wing policies but in defiance of Rajapaksa’s regime. It is this fear of a Rajapaksa comeback that maintained some support for the TNA. Even in these circumstances, many voters switched away from the TNA, voting for other parties and independent candidates.

However it was not clear for voters how the TNPF differed from the TNA. The TNA’s main campaign centred on the proposed new constitution, with their claims that a vote for TNA would secure a new constitution that will lead to federal rights. Many voters saw through this outright lie. But there was no clear alternative. The TNPF’s argument that their victory will check the TNA, in terms of the relationship with the ‘international community’ and “honest and clean” politics, was not enough for many voters. However, their emergence as a significant force in the north, particularly among young Tamils, reflects an increasing Tamil nationalist sentiment in the north (although this phenomenon is largely restricted to the Jaffna district).

The TNPF was not able to gain as much influence in other parts of the north. In particular, the TNPF failed to make any major gains in the East. With the exception of the Batticalo district, where ITAK got a significant vote, none of the north-based Tamil nationalist parties made any gains in the East. The SLPP and UNP won the majority vote in this multi-ethnic area. The Tamil-based parties’ limitations in putting forward any perspective that could bring together all ethnic groups brought them failure in the east.

In the Tamil areas, particularly in the east, what dominated was not the Tamil nationalist sentiment, but the desire for improved conditions. Promising to build roads and organise better garbage collection was not enough for the electorate. Under the UNP they have not seen any development. The TNA’s collaborationist politics have helped awaken the masses to the reality that among these parties there are no significant differences when it comes to their living standards. In this light, the EPDP’s past collaborationist politics with Mahinda gained back certain legitimacy, particularly in areas where development took place under his control in the past. Similarly, the idea of working with the main capitalist parties to gain this or that support was further legitimised by the TNA’s relentless support and promotion of the current government. Voters who are beginning to switch from the TNA had nothing to turn to. The TNPF focus on the Tamil nationalist cause was enough to attract some new layers of youth, but was not enough to satisfy the wider masses in the north and East.

Left alternative must be built

The victory of Mahinda in this election had a demoralising effect among activists. It would be wrong to argue that the UNP or TNA should be strengthened to counter Mahinda’s increasing influence. It is the policies of these forces and their inaction that strengthened Mahinda. Voters have proved again that they are no longer simply loyal to traditional symbols and parties. It is important to build a new alternative that could articulate the needs of the masses, stand firm together in struggle, and lead a decisive battle against the neoliberal offensive. We need a clear alternative that will stand firm for all democratic rights, and, at the same time, put forward an alternative to capitalist policies. The struggle against privatisation, the demand for better conditions, and the demand for social and political justice, should be joined together. Without that it will not be possible to push back the Sinhala nationalism or the development of nationalist polarisation among the new Tamil generation. It is this that is missing in this election. There are no forces that stood firm, providing a political and economic alternative to the capitalist policies of all the main parties.

The presence of a mass left force in Sri Lanka in the past led to winning important reforms, including free education and healthcare for the workers and the poor. However a series of capitulations by the left parties and their class collaboration politics left workers unarmed in the face of a UNP-led neo-liberal offensive over the several decades. Sinahal nationalism and attacks against all minorities, which that emerged in this period, is still dominating Sri Lankan politics. Unfortunately now there is no strong left challenge. This needs to be rebuilt. There is enormous enthusiasm among the new generation to build a strong mass left party that could bring together militant unions, socialists and all progressive sections in the society. It is time that all those who want to build such an alternative come forward to create such a platform.

Committee for a workers' International publications


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