Elections for Sri Lanka’s Western and Southern Provincial councils held at the end of March are significant in a number of respects when compared with previous elections. They were held earlier than scheduled after both Councils were dissolved, to accord with a ‘road map’ prepared on the dictates of President Rajapakse. He wanted to demonstrate that the people in the south were overwhelmingly with him. This, he anticipated, would further weaken the UNP and other opposition parties so that he can amend the Constitution to allow him to stand for a third term and then go for a snap presidential election. The government assumed that it could make the opposition parties squabble among themselves.
The Rajapakse regime, in order to get its plan through, launched a massive media operation to build up public opinion against the US-sponsored resolution coming before the UN Human Rights Commission which was proposing an international investigation into the alleged human rights violations committed during the final stages of the war in the North. It was portrayed that this resolution is a conspiracy hatched by the imperialists and so-called anti-government traitors for a ‘regime change’ and people in the south were urged to come out to protect Rajapakse.
The government knew beforehand that the Geneva vote would take place on March 27th. The hapless Election Commissioner had to give in to the government’s plan. Accordingly this election bore a higher significance than others. The government by its own actions elevated this election to the level of a referendum.
From the date of nominations up to the date of elections the president and other leaders of the ruling government coalition disregarded the problems faced by the common people. Whipping up patriotism deliberately, they urged the people to defend the leader who “defeated terrorism and saved the country”. They repeated that there was a conspiracy through Geneva resolution to overthrow Rajapakshe regime.
Anti-US propaganda fails to impress
On election day, Rajapakse cast his vote at Madamulana in his native Hambantota district and stated publicly that people should demonstrate through this election that they reject the resolution passed in Geneva – thus unashamedly breaking all the election laws. This statement made on the morning of the election was given wide publicity by all the electronic media. Meanwhile, the External Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris, invented a new mathematical formula and stated that the US has been defeated in Geneva! He said that the US-led resolution received only 23 votes and that the 12 against and 12 abstensions totalling 24 amounted to a victory for Sri Lanka.
The results of the election should be analysed keeping this context in mind. The people in the south did not respond to the appeal made to them by Rajapakse and his government. He was staying in his native area for more than a week appealing to the people to vote for his party. Massive so-called construction development has been carried out in the Hambantota district with the building of an international harbour, an airport, a stadium and so on. He named all these places after himself – ‘Rajapakse Harbour’, ‘Rajapakse Airport’ etc… But these measures did not have the desired effect on the way people voted; what really happened was a marked decline in the number of votes for Rajapakse.
The number of people who cast their vote in the Hambantota district went down from 70.2% to 66.8% even though the president intervened there personally. In the Southern Province the ruling coalition obtained 804,071 votes in 2009 and this time it could only obtain 699,408 votes. This is a reduction of 104,663 votes for the government. The number of councillors elected was 33 compared with 38 in 2009. In Western Province, the ruling coalition mustered 1,363,675 votes this time and in 2009 it was able to get 1,404,440 votes. The number of seats came down from 68 to 56.
New situation opens up
These results indicate that the triumphal march of Rajapakse is coming to an end. It started with the victory in the presidential election of 2005, gained momentum with an even easier victory at the next presidential elections, held after defeating the Tamil Tigers in 2009, and reached a climax in the victory at the parliamentary elections in 2010. Now the people are undergoing severe social and economic problems and the government would no longer be able to cover up those issues with racism and war hysteria.
This marks a historic turning point, with the continual rise of the Rajapakse regime being checked and a new alignment of anti-government forces taking place. We have seen the street demonstrations in Weliweriya Ratupaswala, demanding the removal of the factory which is poisoning the water. During election time in Dematagoda, Colombo thousands of people occupied the main road against their removal from their houses for so-called development. In Avissawella Thunnana there were also protests against water pollution, this time by a rubber factory, in which a police officer was killed. People are coming forward collectively to defend their rights and express unhappiness about the present system
The image of Rajapakse as an unbreakable giant rock is now beginning to crumble. At the same time the nature of opposition political forces has to be understood. The main opposition capitalist party, the UNP, has been able to prevent the complete erosion of its votes, but its inability to win back the trust of the masses has been shown by the latest polls, even at a time when the people are turning against the regime. It has managed to maintain only a bare minimum of its multi-racial base and has not been able to attract the votes of the minorities.
The UNP managed to win five seats in Colombo city, defeating the coalition candidates. However, the Democratic People’s Front, led by Mano Ganeshan, with the official backing of the TNA, was able to muster 44,156 votes and win two seats. This indicates that the majority of Tamils living in Colombo voted for the DPF. The vast majority of Sinhala Buddhists in the suburbs of Colombo are voting for other non-government parties. The result obtained by Mano is comparable to the victory of Vigneshwaran in the North last September. The DPF vote can be viewed as a step taken by the Tamil people to express their identity, discarding the main capitalist parties such as those in the coalition and the opposition UNP.
The Muslim Congress, which is a part of the ruling coalition, tried to deceive the Muslim people again but was shown the door by those very same people. They could obtain only 20,183 votes and one seat. Another significant feature in the results was that not a single Tamil or Muslim candidate from the ruling coalition was elected. This is a good indication that the Rajapakse administration has been rejected not only by the people of the North and East but also by the Tamil and Muslim people in the Colombo metropolis.
The Democratic Party led by former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka managed to win 7.9% in the Western Province and 6.2% in the Southern Province. This can be seen as the demonstration of an anti-government vote from those frustrated with the internal bickering of the UNP as well as from a certain section who are more militaristic and chauvinistic who may have voted for his party.
The chauvinist JVP which was instrumental in Rajapakse’s victory in 2005 and strongly supported the war, has been in the doldrums during the past period, but managed to recover in this election. It was able to get big publicity even from the capitalist media. It has had a change of leadership from Somawansha Amarasinghe to Anura Kumara Dissanayaka and has been trying to wash away its old "sins". This attempt, it seems, has been successful to some extent.
The JVP, while projecting the Sinhalese petty bourgeois ideology on the national question portrayed itself as the ‘clean’ new force, fighting against bribery and corruption on behalf of the Sinhala Buddhist masses. The new policy document of the JVP, called ‘Our Vision’, was presented to Buddhist chief prelates in Kandy. This is nothing more than using backward Sinhala-Buddhist ideology, which is inseparable from their body politic.
Though the JVP was able to get some results at this election, the hopes of the youth for a socialist future with the JVP will be dashed during the coming political crisis. The votes obtained by the JVP can be seen as an indication, in an obscure way, of a section of the anti-capitalist radical masses wanting to build a left alternative.
The regime seems to be resorting to repression again when it sees that its grip on power is loosening. A Tiger phobia is being created in the North and people are being subjected to severe repressive measures. Even though Ruki Fernando and Fr. Praveen Mahesan have been released now, their democratic rights have been severely curtailed. There is no freedom in sight for Jeya Kumari and her daughter Vibhushika who were arrested in Kilinochchi. Various people are being arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and detained for unspecified periods. There is undeclared army rule in the north again with the government campaign against the re-emergence of the Tigers. Proscribing sixteen organisations in the country, under the pretext of being connected to the LTTE, is the latest action in this direction.
However for the Rajapakse regime there is no option for survival than through exploiting Sinhala Buddhist nationalist sentiments. The government has stated that it would not allow an international investigation under the terms of the Geneva resolution. This would have great implications for the country and would produce a crisis in international relations. Already Sri Lanka’s garment industry is suffering in a big way from the loss of the ‘GSP+’ trade concession. The government’s adamant stand on Geneva can create further problems.
Therefore there is a big possibility of Rajapakse going for a snap election by amending the constitution. Even taking that decision will not be easy for his regime. Opposition is mounting.
United Socialist Party
In the recent elections, sensing its weakness, the state employed gangster tactics throughout. Thuggery, bribery and corruption reigned. The United Socialist Party stood on a clear socialist platform, without advertising or getting media publicity. The 605 votes in Galle and 739 in Kaluthara for the USP are therefore a harbinger of bigger support to come.
Now, in the situation where the government is facing considerable difficulties, there should be no delay in building an anti-capitalist force, bringing together left forces, active workers and youth together with representatives of poor farming and fishing communities. For that, it is essential to build a national organisation of the working class and trade union movement to develop the whole class in an anti-government and anti-bosses struggle that draws in all these other layers. The USP can play a decisive role in this process as the crisis unfolds.