National Sections of the L5I:

Sri Lanka: Duplicity on the Right, confusion on the Left

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On July 26, Sri Lanka's newly elected President, Maithripala Sirisena, dissolved Parliament and ordered a general election to be held on August 17. This brings to an end a period of minority government, led by Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party, which was installed after the defeat of the previous President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, last January. Peter Main examines the background to Rajapaksa's defeat, its implications for Sri Lanka's international orientation and the inadequacy of the Left's response.

The long deserved, but little anticipated, downfall of Mahinda Rajapakse as President of Sri Lanka illustrates how the shifting balance of power in international politics can interact with the dynamics of domestic politics in such a semicolonial country. He was defeated by an alliance of mutual enemies, motivated by self-interest and orchestrated by US backers determined to stem the rise of Chinese influence. At a time of increased military interventions, overt or covert, it was a timely reminder of how the imperialist powers can still make use of what has come to be known as "soft power". However, the election campaign itself also provided striking confirmation of the degeneration and disintegration of Trotskyism in one of the few countries where it was once a mass force.

Although Rajapaksa himself was elected as the candidate of a similar alliance of rivalrous parties, the United People's Freedom Alliance, UPFA (see box) it was treachery in his own party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, SLFP, (see box) that proved his undoing. To appreciate how that came about it is necessary first to provide some historical context and, within that, to emphasise the centrality of the Tamil national question to all Sri Lankan politics.

After the general election of 2001, Sri Lanka had a period of “cohabitation” with the Executive Presidency held by Chandrika Kumaratunga of the SLFP and, incidentally, the daughter of the founder of the party Solomon Bandaranaike, elected first in 1994 while the Prime Minister, with a majority in Parliament, was Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party, UNP. Kumaratunga had been elected as an opponent of the neo-liberal policy of Wickremasinghe's previous government in the early 90s but had herself adopted similar policies once in power. On economic policy, therefore, collaboration was entirely possible. However, there was a historical difference over the “Tamil Question”, Wickremasinghe having been party to an agreement that allowed Indian troops onto the island as a “peacekeeping force” that had been opposed by the SLFP.

In 2002, Wickremasinghe signed a ceasefire with the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, and opened talks on a permanent power-sharing arrangement. President Kumaratunga did not support this and, the following year, took advantage of a prime ministerial foreign trip to prorogue parliament. In 2004, she then formed an alliance with the Janathi Vikmuthi Peramuna, JVP (see box) which allowed her to dissolve parliament and call a general election in April. As a result of that election, Mahinda Rajapaksa of the SLFP, became Prime Minister.

In December 2004, Sri Lanka was hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated large areas of the coastal regions on the East and South of the island. In its aftermath, the LTTE demonstrated its ability to function as a quasi autonomous administration, reinforced by an agreement to share foreign aid with the government under the existing ceasefire signed by Wickremasinghe. This, however, was rejected by the JVP, which withdrew from the government in June 2005, leaving Rajapaksa at the head of a minority government.

Kumaratunga having served her term of office, Rajapaksa, stood as the candidate of the UPFA in the presidential election in November of that year. His platform included a rejection of federalism and of the existing ceasefire agreement, thereby regaining the support of the JVP for the UPFA. In the election itself, his principal opponent was the UNP's Ranil Wickremasinghe, whose prospects were effectively destroyed by the LTTE's enforcement of an electoral boycott in the Tamil districts, from where he could have expected substantial support.

Although he won by a narrow margin, 1.5 percent, in what was, essentially, a two-horse race, Rajapaksa proceeded to make full use of the powers of the Executive Presidency, which had, ironically, been introduced by an earlier UNP Prime Minister, Julius Jayawardene. The logic of the UPFA coalition’s politics guaranteed an inexorable drive towards outright war against the LTTE and, in the course of that war, the regime became increasingly authoritarian. As knowledge of atrocities leaked out, political critics and investigative journalists alike found themselves victims of “anti-terror” legislation and other emergency laws. Opponents began to disappear, very often into the white vans associated with the security services, often never to be seen again.

In the short term, this shored up the regime, allowing it to browbeat the domestic media into only repeating its own version of events. However, further afield, and particularly in India, it alienated opinion and discouraged investment. Nonetheless, with the final, and barbaric, defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the scene was set for the Rajapaksa clan to exploit victory.

At the last minute, a challenge came from an unexpected quarter in the person of Sarath Fonseka, who Rajapaksa had retained as Commander of the Army immediately after winning the 2005 election. After an internal dispute, which may have been related to claiming “credit” for the military victory, Fonseka was unceremoniously sacked and immediately announced himself a candidate in the forthcoming Presidential election.

In that election, Fonseka was backed by all of the mainstream opposition parties, including the UNP and the JVP who had left the UPFA after an internal split in May 2008. Unsurprisingly, Rajapaksa won that election by a wide margin, 57.8 percent to Fonseka’s 40.1percent and, equally unsurprisingly, Fonseka was then arrested, tried for sedition and jailed for two years. Politically, as well as demonstrating the unprincipled opportunism of the main opposition parties and personalities, the election underlined the breadth of Rajapaksa’s support among the Sinhalese majority, although this was accentuated by widespread abstention in the Tamil dominated regions.

After his victory in that Presidential election, Rajapaksa dissolved Parliament and called a general election. This, predictably, consolidated his position; the UPFA won 144 of the 225 seats while the opposition parties, unable to find a basis for any kind of opposed electoral alliance, all suffered losses as compared to the 2004 election. The UNP lost 22 seats while holding 60, the Tamil National Alliance, TNA, went down from 22 to 14 and the Democratic National Alliance of Sarath Fonseka, supported by the JVP, won 7.

Emboldened, Rajapaksa proceeded to capitalise on his pre-eminence. Literally, it would seem from the reports of embezzlement that have come to light since his fall from power. In the longer term, this was to be his undoing but in the meantime the need for reconstruction after the decades-long war offered many opportunities. In this, China proved to be a reliable alternative to the “West”, providing not only investment funds but also entire projects such as motorways, harbours, bridges and airports designed, from the Sri Lankan point of view, to enhance the island’s potential as a tourist destination.

One component of this strategy was the role of the Army, under the political leadership of the President's brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, as an economic agency involved in civil engineering and resort development. This role was very much to the fore in the Tamil-dominated districts of the North and East where it acted as an army of occupation and oversaw the repopulation of former war zones by Sinhalese settlers. For Beijing, the island had greater potential as one of the “string of pearls”, strategic naval bases and supply points around the southern coast of Asia that could cater for the needs of her developing “blue water” navy.

Of course, with the lion’s share of all economic activity, and the associated funding, going to the cronies of the governing family, other sectors of the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie, both Sinhalese and Tamil, as well as the “middle class” professions of law, health and education, became increasingly restive. In keeping with their status as the traditional elites of Sri Lankan society, the international ties of such groups were with the West, both the former colonial power, the United Kingdom, and the USA as well as having long-standing links to their counterparts in India.

The UPFA ultimately brought together 17 political parties, whose loyalties had to be secured with government posts and other sinecures so that the Cabinet boasted more than 130 members by the end. However, as with all despotic regimes, real power become ever more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. And most of those hands belonged to the “Rajapaksa clan”; as well as Gotabhaya as Defence Secretary, another brother, Basil, was Minister for Economic Development whilst the eldest of the brothers, Chamal, was the Speaker of Parliament. Beyond that, various cousins, nephews and in-laws served, if that is the right word, as heads of provincial governments, and ambassadors and directors of state industries such as Sri Lankan Airlines.

Flagrant nepotism in the administration was paralleled by equally flagrant breaches of the norms of constitutional government the most significant of which was the removal of the Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, in January 2013. Although her appointment itself had been accompanied by considerable controversy, her dismissal after she had fallen out with Rajapaksa made it clear that the President regarded his government as above the law.

Nonetheless, the real impact of Rajapaksa’s policies, as he implemented the IMF’s requirements by devaluing the rupee and introducing a programme of cuts and privatisation, was, of course, felt by the great majority of workers, farmers and fishermen, not by the privileged professionals. As a result, discontent began to rise even in the districts that were considered solidly pro-Rajapaksa.

As is so often the case, it was student demonstrations in the summer of 2013 that heralded a significant change in the political climate. Although brutally repressed by the police and their leaders arrested, the demonstrations, which were in opposition to privatisation plans, highlighted and generalised a more general disenchantment. They were followed in November 2013 by a joint trade union protest, initiated by the JVP and bringing together both private and public sector unions in response to Rajapaksa’s budget proposals.

That Rajapaksa was losing support was made even clearer by elections in the Southern and Western Provinces in March 2014. Although the UPFA held on to its majority in both councils, support was significantly down and this raised the prospect that, in the longer term, the ruling alliance could be vulnerable by the time of the next parliamentary election, due in 2016. That being the case, the days of Rajapaksa himself might be numbered.

Recognising the implications of those elections, Rajapaksa’s first priority was to try to restore his support amongst the majority Sinhalese community, previously boosted by his presentation of the Tamils as a foreign-backed threat to the unity of the nation, by now turning against the much smaller Muslim community. The absurdity of the idea that the overwhelming majority of the population were now threatened by “Islamisation” did not prevent encouragement and covert support for groups such as Bodu Bala Sena, a Buddhist, clerical-fascist organisation led by monks.

If anything, the crudity of this strategy, and the obvious collusion of security forces in an attack on a Muslim community in June 2014, reduced Rajapaksa's standing further. Nonetheless, he still faced a divided opposition and his principal opponent, Ranil Wickremasinghe had actually seen his own party, the UNP, lose votes in the Western Province.

Clearly, then, although Rajapaksa had been shown to be potentially vulnerable, actually defeating him would require more than just waiting for him to overplay his hand. Within the crucial Sinhalese rural population, he remained overwhelmingly popular. For two years, Wickremasinghe had been trying to redefine himself as an opponent of the neo-liberal economic policies and the repressive regime of the government in an attempt to broaden his own support base. In this he had found enthusiastic support from what should have been the most unlikely quarter, amongst the remnants of the Trotskyist movement.

Both the Fourth International section, Nava Sama Samaja Party, NSSP, and the CWI section, the United Socialist Party, USP, led by Vickremabahu Karunaratne and Siritunga Jayasuriya respectively, shared political platforms with him and justified this by conjuring up the spectre of an increasingly “fascist” Rajapaksa and an even more unlikely “social-democratised” Wickremasinghe.

However, whatever the usefulness of this leftist camouflage in strengthening Wickremasinghe's democratic credentials, it clearly was not going to be the key to toppling Rajapaksa; in the Provincial elections of 2014 both the NSSP and the USP gained just 0.04 percent of the vote. Instead, he turned his attention to finding more substantial support, much more substantial support, from abroad. Immediately after the Provincial elections, he departed for a month of political discussions in the USA, during which he met with both Congress and Administration officials.

The attraction, from the USA's point of view, was that Rajapaksa was becoming a liability. While there was no suggestion that his occasional rhetorical denunciations of imperialism had any substance whatsoever, his increasingly repressive regime did not sit well with Washington's international presentation of itself as a friend of democracy and human rights. Worse still, in the absence of enthusiastic backing from the Western imperialists, Colombo was now turning increasingly to China not only for diplomatic support but for investment funds. In exchange, Beijing openly referred to Sri Lanka as one of the “string of pearls”.

In the context of Obama's “pivot to Asia”, this developing strategic alliance had to be stopped and Sri Lanka had to be turned decisively back towards the West and the key regional power, India. As a former prime minister who had cooperated closely with India in trying to defuse the Tamil question, Wickremasinghe was a suitable candidate for the role of the West's standard bearer. He was not, however, the State Department's only asset among the Sri Lankan elite; after leaving office in 2005, Chandrika Kumaratunga had taken up a position in the Clinton Foundation and, as a senior figure in the SLFP, was well-placed to undermine Rajapaksa's position at the very heart of his political machine.

In September, 2014, in elections in the Province of Uva, in the South East of the island, the UPFA gained 51.25 percent while UNP support climbed to 40.2 percent. This set the scene for the final act in Rajapaksa's drama and was probably the point at which he decided to bring forward the Presidential election, as he had hinted at earlier in the year.

It also prompted a secretive meeting in New Delhi at which the crucial element in the conspiracy, for that is what it was, to remove Rajapaksa, was agreed, This was the recruitment of Maithripala Sirisena, at that time a minister in the cabinet, the General Secretary of the SLFP and a confidante of the President, as the single candidate of the main opposition parties should Rajapaksa go ahead with his early presidential election.

The prospect of a “common candidate” for the main parties outside the SLFP-led UPFA clearly represented a potential nullification of Rajapaksa's principal strategic assumption, that he faced a divided opposition. Nonetheless, there was still the question of how to ensure inroads into his electoral support in the Sinhalese community. Sirisena certainly represented the same political tradition but, as a defector, there was no guarantee of support from the grassroots. To strengthen his credentials on this front, support was canvassed from the even more chauvinist Sinhalese party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, JHU, itself a part of the UPFA and an advocate of resettling Tamil districts with Sinhalese.

However, the logic of the collaboration between the erstwhile enemies, Wickremasinghe and Kumaratunga, was that it would open the possibility of attracting Tamil votes as well as those of the UNP and at least some of the SLFP. This was where the involvement of the Western powers, and India, was crucial. The Tamil elites, represented in the Tamil National Alliance, had traditionally always been pro-Western and knew perfectly well the importance of the Tamil question in internal Indian politics. Consequently, they calculated that their interests could be served by backing the “common candidate”, even though it was Sirisena and that support meant joining an alliance with the JHU.

As an example of unprincipled political chicanery, then, the anti-Rajapaksa cabal was up there with the best, or worst, of them. The secrecy with which it was constructed was also an object lesson in international skullduggery; spurred on, no doubt, for several of the conspirators by the knowledge of quite how brief their future political careers would be if wind of their plans had ever reached the Rajapaksa camp.

Chief among these, naturally, was Sirisena himself who remained such a trusted lieutenant that Rajapaksa explained his strategy for the early presidential election to him over supper on November 19. After weeks of media speculation about his intentions, Rajapaksa finally announced on November 20 that the election would be held on January 8. However, in accordance with the principle that “Dog bites man” is much less newsworthy than “Man bites dog”, his declaration was effectively overshadowed by the revelation that he would not face a divided opposition but only one real opponent, the “common candidate” of the opposition parties, his Minister of Health, Maithripala Sirisena.

In the weeks that followed, a carefully orchestrated series of defections of UPFA MPs, and even cabinet ministers, to the “common candidate” not only created an impression of a growing movement against Rajapaksa but also confirmed the existence of powerful backing for his opponent; nobody deserts to the Opposition, or leaves a government post, without being very sure that it will be to their advantage.

Whether this would be enough to dislodge Rajapaksa, however, remained unclear; early opinion polls suggested not. A key factor in the uncertainty was the reluctance of the TNA to make its position clear. Whether this reticence was a calculated tactic or the result of divided opinions within the TNA, when its support for Sirisena was finally announced, only days before the polls opened, it did shift the balance of forces and, for the first time, opinion polls pointed to defeat for the incumbent President.

The Left and the Election

In Sri Lankan terms, “the Left” is taken to include the Communist Party, CP, and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, LSSP, which have long been allies of the SLFP, members of the UPFA and represented in government. Naturally, they supported Rajapaksa and nothing more needs to be said about them with regard to the election.

Until an internal split in 2008, the JVP, was also a component of the UPFA and had seats in government, however, towards the end of the Tamil war, after the defection of the most extreme Sinhala chauvinists from its ranks, it moved to a more independent position and raised some criticisms of the conduct of the war. In the Presidential election of 2010, the party supported Rajapaksa's former Chief of Staff, Sarath Fonseka in an earlier attempt to establish a “common candidate”. This time round, however, these supposed Leftists took the most cowardly position, calling for votes “against Rajapaksa” without openly endorsing Sirisena as the only candidate with the potential to win.

On the “Far Left”, which is composed of various small groups originating in both Trotskyism and Maoism, a proposal was made for mounting a “common candidate of the Left” via the Left Front, a discussion forum in which many of these groups participate. Although the majority of the groups agreed to the proposal and proceeded to a discussion on the programme that should be presented by a common candidate, two groups dissented.

The first of these, the Socialist Equality Party, SEP, the section of the International Committee for the Fourth International, rejected the proposal out of hand and took no part in discussions on the grounds that it alone represented the revolutionary interests of the working class whilst all the groups in the Left Front were merely “fake Lefts”. This unscientific characterisation only serves to justify isolating the members and supporters of the SEP from contact and discussion with other currents. This is necessary in order to prevent any critical examination of the SEP's claims to revolutionary intransigence.

These fall apart as soon as its actual programme, (see separate box) as presented via the WSWS on December 15, 2014, is examined:

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In opposition to every other party, the SEP places the struggle against imperialist war at the centre of its election campaign.

The Rajapakse government has deliberately fomented communalism as a means of dividing working people. It falsely claims that “LTTE terrorists are reviving” to incite fear and justify its massive military occupation of the North and East, while nurturing fascistic Sinhala-Buddhist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena and Ravana Balakaya to target Muslims. Sirisena’s embrace of the communal extremists of the JHU demonstrates that he will use similar methods.

It is literally impossible to oppose the predatory actions of imperialism or the global conglomerates and financial houses on the basis of one nation, no matter how big or small.

The SEP calls for a constituent assembly, elected democratically, to draft a new constitution that abolishes all repressive and discriminatory laws. The demand for a constituent assembly can only assure democratic rights insofar as it is part of the political struggle to mobilise the working class and oppressed masses to abolish capitalism.
The SEP advocates the following policies to address the social crisis facing workers and the poor:
* To assure jobs for unemployed youth, we propose the expansion of employment through the reduction of the working week to 30 hours, but without any loss of pay. A multi-billion rupee public works program must be launched to create well-paid jobs and meet urgent public needs for housing, schools, hospitals and roads.
* We demand the scrapping of the contract labour system, which has been used to undermine the pay and conditions of the working class as a whole. More than half the workforce now depends on contract and casual work. All workers must have the right to secure, well-paid jobs. Pay must be immediately raised to a living wage, indexed against inflation.
* The SEP calls for the spending of billions of rupees to expand public education and health care to make free, high quality services available to all. Public housing must be greatly expanded to provide decent accommodation at affordable rates.
* We advocate making state lands available for all landless farmers, regardless of ethnicity. The debts of all poor farmers and fishermen must be cancelled immediately and cheap credit, technical advice and other assistance made available. Prices for their products must be guaranteed to assure a decent standard of living.
The above policies are not compatible with the private ownership of the large corporations and banks, which must be nationalised under the democratic control of working people. Society as a whole has to be reorganised from top to bottom on socialist lines to meet the pressing needs of the majority, not the profits of the super-wealthy few.

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This falls very far short of a revolutionary programme, it avoids a clear explanation of the need for workers' own organisations, councils and militias, to break up the existing state and replace it with their own rule, that is what a socialist revolution is. The SEP contents itself with “Society as a whole has to be reorganised from top to bottom on socialist lines...” Not a word about revolution. Insofar as the issue of government is raised, it is limited to the demand for a constituent assembly which will “draft a new constitution that abolishes all repressive and discriminatory laws”, in other words, a democratically elected, parliamentary style body is expected to overthrow capitalism by … drafting a new constitution!

Nor is this the only example of this programme's failure to grapple with the really existing tasks in Sri Lanka. While its starting point, “In opposition to every other party, the SEP places the struggle against imperialist war at the centre of its election campaign” might at first sight appear very internationalist and radical it is actually empty and sterile. While it is certainly necessary to locate Sri Lankan politics in an international context and to recognise that inter-imperialist rivalry is sharpening and has the potential, indeed the logic, of war, that does not mean that such a war is, today, the central issue in Sri Lanka.

The purpose of this extravagant language is to distract attention from the programme's failure to address the really central issue in Sri Lankan politics, the national question and the rights of the Tamils. This, we are told, is simply the product of Rajapaksa's divisive policies, in other words, the SEP denies that there is a national question and does not recognise the right of the Tamils to self-determination. And they call other groups “fake lefts”!

The truth is that the SEP, like most of the groups it condemns and refuses even to talk to, has an entirely centrist concept of politics and programme. Alongside the incorrect or inadequate positions it has adopted, it undoubtedly also makes very valid points, particularly about the character of the whole election as simply a division within the bourgeoisie in which revolutionaries should argue for complete political independence of the working class. It is precisely this combination of accuracy and inadequacy that justifies our characterisation of them as centrist.

In their case, however, their centrism has a particularly sectarian character that expresses itself in practice as an inability to relate to the contradictions within mass movements so that trade unions, for example, are seen only as a means of disciplining the working class. Theoretically, it is seen in the failure to connect the maximum element of the programme to the actually existing struggles and needs of the working class.

The second group to oppose a common candidate of the Left was the Sri Lankan section of the Fourth International, NSSP, led by Vikremabahu Karunaratne. More precisely, Karunaratne proposed support for the common candidate of the bourgeoisie, Sirisena! This was too much for some of his comrades, grouped around the publication Left Voice, who did support a common candidate of the Left. To add to the confusion characteristic of this organisation, it finally decided to stand its own candidate but to use that candidacy to argue support for Sirisena!

This is fully in keeping with the line Karunaratne has been pursuing for several years, except that, until November, he was pushing for working class support for the UNP leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe. The rationale for this was that Rajapaksa's regime was becoming increasingly fascist and that Wickremasinghe, in calling for a broad opposition front in defence of democracy, had virtually become a “social democrat” and, therefore, worthy of support.

When that “broad opposition front” instead opted for Sirisena, Karunaratne meekly accepted that and called for votes for someone who, until November, was a senior member of the “increasingly fascist regime”. Some idea of the utter confusion into which the NSSP's leader has fallen can be gained when it is remembered that he personally has had an entirely honourable record of solidarising with the Tamil struggle and defending their right of self-determination and yet, in this election, he shared platforms with Sirisena who, as a senior minister in the Defence Ministry at the time, held personal political responsibility for the massacres of Tamil civilians at the end of the war.

Further evidence of having lost all political bearings is provided by his subsequent characterisation of the electoral victory of Sirisena as a “popular uprising”. As recently as May 28, in his regular column in Ceylon Today, he described the SLFP proposal of a vote of no confidence in the UNP government as an “attempt to overthrow the results of the popular uprising that produced the Sirisena government”.

Extending his argument, he concluded that, by comparison with a government that resulted from this popular uprising, “parliament has no mandate” and that, therefore, there should be “popular mobilisations” to defend this government of the Sri Lankan ruling class! We have no illusions in the democratic credentials of the Sri Lankan parliament but those now opposed to Sirisena and Wickremasinghe were elected on precisely the same basis as those now supporting them. Carried away with the fervour of his support for this blood-stained Presidential government, Karunaratne went on to describe the National Executive Council, an unconstitutional advisory body set up by Sirisena, and of which he is himself a member, as “a revolutionary step to implement people's power”.

If an arch opponent of Trotskyism were to submit this sorry story as a script for a theatrical farce intended to discredit everything Trotsky stood for, it would surely be rejected as too far-fetched to be credible.

Initially, the CWI section, the United Socialist Party, USP, also participated in the programme discussions of the Left Front until their proposal that their leader, Siritunga Jayasuriya, should be the candidate of the Left Front was rejected in favour of a candidate from the Front Line Socialist Party, by far the biggest of the participating organisations. At that point, the USP decided to participate no further on the grounds that the adopted programme did not include a principled position of recognition of the right of the Tamils to self-determination. As we shall see, that is a valid criticism and one raised by the SPSL.

However, as a rationale for standing a separate candidate it is greatly undermined by the weakness of the programme on which Jayasuriya did then stand. Rather like the SEP, the only demand at the level of the state and government is, for “annulling the present constitution and the formation of a democratic revolutionary constituent assembly consisting of elected representatives from all sections of the society. This democratic body can then decide what kind of constitution they have and what kind of economic plan they want to implement.” (CWI website report, 11/12/14)

The Left Front

What, then, of the Left Front's programme? As the product of negotiation between several organisations, it is no surprise that this programme contains, in our opinion, a number of serious weaknesses. While we continue to think that standing a "common candidate of the left" was a worthwhile exercise, its potential to be a step on the road towards the foundation of a new working class party in Sri Lanka will depend on learning lessons from the campaign and overcoming weaknesses in the programme as adopted.

Here, we want first to concentrate on what we consider fundamental issues raised by the programme, before illustrating those issues by considering more detailed questions of formulation. For us, a socialist programme is first and foremost a strategy by which the working class as it exists today can develop itself to become capable of taking power in society and using the resources of society to optimise production and remove inequality. As Marxists, we think this can only be done by the working class creating its own organisations in the course of the class struggle and then using them to overthrow the state institutions of bourgeois society, thereby becoming the state structures of a new society themselves.

The most important strength of the Left Front programme is that it calls for society to be run by a system of workers' councils and for its economic base to be socialised and democratically planned. This immediately distinguishes it from reformism or the "stages" theory of revolution characteristic of Stalinist parties. Equally, the programme makes clear that it will be necessary to expropriate the property of multinational corporations and to cancel all debts to the international financial institutions in order for the working class and its allies to exercise sovereign control over the economy.

It is important that the programme also addresses the immediate crisis of Sri Lankan society, which can be summarised as the denial or systematic erosion of democratic rights. It does this by demanding a constituent assembly with sovereign power, with guaranteed representation of the working class as well as the oppressed nationalities, that will draw up a new constitution. Posing the immediate issues in this way explicitly avoids reinforcing the illusion that the existing political institutions of Sri Lankan society could be the instruments for the transformation of society.

The weakness that we see in this programme is the lack of any practical political link between these two levels. For revolutionaries, that link is expressed in the foundation, development and eventual government by the workers' councils. In the programme as it stands, although these councils are presented as the future society's controlling institutions, they appear as if from nowhere. We think this problem can be resolved by stressing the role of independent and democratically controlled working-class organisations, whether that be trade unions, single issue campaigns or community organisations, in fighting for immediate economic and political demands.

The development of such fighting organisations is the precondition for the later building of workers' councils composed of recallable delegates from such organisations. Naturally, we would propose a similar pattern of organisation for other plebeian classes such as small farmers and fisherfolk who, whilst not being part of the working class itself are, nonetheless, exploited and oppressed by big capital.

Because the role of such fighting organisations is not stressed in the existing programme, there is an inevitable danger that the audience for the programme will assume that existing organisations and institutions will be the means by which all the demands and proposals raised by the programme are to be realised. Indeed, it could be thought that winning the presidential election is the precondition for their achievement.

Having established our critique of the programme as a whole, let us now illustrate our point by a consideration of particular formulations in the programme.

The first section of the programme deals with the question of the state and provides several examples of the problem that we have identified. Thus, while calling for a new constituent assembly and the abolition of the current constitution and the “Executive Presidency”, the programme says nothing about who will convene this constituent assembly. Where are the forces in Sri Lanka today that could make a constituent assembly happen? We say “make it happen” advisedly because all of the existing institutions, as well as the major parties, will oppose the calling of such an assembly. We think the programme should make clear that the convening of a constituent assembly would only be possible in a revolutionary situation and that it would be dependent on the mobilisation of the masses whose own organisations will oversee elections to the assembly.

This general point could be made about each of the paragraphs dealing with the state; the particular points, such as the separation of state and religion and the exercise of sovereign power through "people's councils" (we would, of course, re-draft that as “workers' councils") or minimum rights such as the eight hour day, equal pay or education and healthcare, are all entirely supportable, of course, but if we do not say who is going to ensure their introduction they remain nothing more than aspirations.

The section where this is most obviously clear is in that dealing with the security forces, police and intelligence services. These will be dissolved and replaced by a people's voluntary militia, the programme says, but who is to dissolve them? We have already seen what they are capable of and there is no reason to believe they would dissolve themselves simply because they were told to.

The next section, dealing with the economy, provides many more examples of the same problem. It says, for example, that ownership of large-scale production and decisions on production "will be transferred to the working class through the state and factories and workers' councils" and this immediately raises the question of how this transfer will take place. The implication is that this transfer of ownership and control will be carried through by the existing state but that is clearly a reformist illusion, the actually existing state, no matter who the president might be, would never carry out such a transfer.

The reference to workers' councils makes the formulation even more unclear not only because, as in the previous section, there is no explanation of where these workers' councils come from, but because they appear to have a collaborative relationship with the state. For Marxists, workers' councils are the organisations of the future state. They will be created in the course of the class struggle, which itself will include not only the breaking up of existing state institutions but the seizure of control over all means of production.

Without a clear differentiation between the existing state with its existing institutions and personnel and the future, workers' state, all the more specific proposals in this section such as "control of the decisive parts of the economy", "social ownership of all banks and financial institutions" and the centralisation and planning of money supply, foreign exchange, foreign trade and capital flow, appear to be just utopian descriptions of a future society, unrelated to the existing class struggle.

Paragraph 8 of this section presents a different problem; it says that state, cooperative and small-scale property will be fundamental to the production process. What this really means is unclear. It has already been established that all large-scale production is to be socialised and subject to planning, presumably controlled by workers' councils. We presume that covers industry, transport, energy generation, finance, health and education. What needs to be clarified is the relationship between this planned sector and the unplanned, still privately-owned, sector of much smaller scale production which, it is agreed, would no doubt still exist in a country like Sri Lanka. If the intention is to reassure small property owners such as farmers and fisherfolk that they will not be expropriated like the large-scale capitalists, then this should be be made explicit.

The section dealing with taxation, illustrates the ambiguous nature of the programme, once again leaving it unclear whether it is proposing measures to be taken within the existing, capitalist state or whether it is describing the future, socialist state. To demand a progressive tax system as long as capitalism exists is a correct demand, as is the abolition of all indirect taxation, which inevitably hits the poorest hardest, and a tax on wealth and property but, in a society where all large-scale production and finance etc has been socialised and placed under democratic planning, such taxation will be relatively less important.

A very similar point could be made about the section dealing with working conditions and terms of employment. Here, too, the distinction between the immediate demands raised to deal with today's conditions, such as those against temporary or informal contracts and for such rights as collective bargaining and limits on the working day, are presented alongside others which will only be possible in the aftermath of revolution; replacing a “system in which capitalists rob social production” with one that will “direct the surplus to a social security fund”.

If anything, the section dealing with agriculture is even weaker in that it lacks any immediate demands at all and only presents very abstract aspirations; farmers will be “released from the influence of (the) imperialist, monopoly market”, their “land and water problems will be solved and agricultural production will be increased”. How? All we are told is that small scale producers will be “encouraged to adopt cooperative production through giving seeds, fertilisers, and agricultural inputs through a structure based on farmers' councils”.

We raise these issues, and there are others, because we think they point to an absolutely fundamental question of political strategy; are the organs of the future revolutionary state, workers' councils, farmers' councils and their respective militias, built before and during the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist power or are they established afterwards? Our concern is that the programme implies a version of the Maoist tradition in which, having seized power via a politicised military struggle, the party then organises workers and peasants into what are called workers' and farmers' councils but which are actually subordinate structures through which the party administers its rule.

For us, such councils, composed as they should be of democratically elected and recallable delegates from the workers' own fighting organisations (such as unions, factory committees, self-defence militia, working class women's and youth organisations) are the organisations which make the revolution, seizing power by armed insurrection and the breaking up of the institutions of the old state. As such, they can only exist in a fully developed form at points of extreme class struggle. However, in embryonic form, they can begin to develop within any class struggle situation, providing there are people who understand the need to build organisations that can develop in that direction.

That is where the party is important. Whatever its stage of development (and all parties go through several stages of development, more or less quickly dependent on the circumstances of the class struggle) it is composed of those who understand this strategy for the class struggle and the fight for a socialist transformation and have dedicated themselves to it. Except in times of revolutionary crisis, these are going to be a minority, sometimes a very small minority, therefore, although their task is always to win the most advanced workers to this strategy, how they do this will necessarily vary. At the present time, there is no such party in Sri Lanka and the task is the formation of an organisational nucleus of those who agree on this conception of revolutionary politics. The precondition for that is the clarification of what those politics are, and that should be the guiding principle of the Left Front.

The National Question

If our criticism of the programme up to this point has been centred on a lack of integration between immediate demands and those related to the overthrow of the capitalist state and the establishment of a workers' state, when it comes to the final section, dealing with the national question, then the problem is rather one of a failure to develop minimum demands to their logical and principled conclusions.

In this section, the strengths are the recognition of the national oppression of the Tamils and an explicit commitment to abolish that repression. Here, too, there is recognition of the need to fight for immediate democratic demands such as full citizenship for the Tamils of the plantations. The programme rightly talks in terms of standing (and, we hope, acting!) in solidarity with the struggles of the Tamil and Muslim communities and of integrating those struggles into the struggle for a broader socialist transformation.

What then, do we see as weaknesses? Essentially, the programme contains an impossible contradiction; it speaks of the Tamils as nationally oppressed, that is, as a nation that is denied its national rights. It speaks of “a solution based on complete self-autonomous units” but it does not accept, let alone call for, the recognition of the Tamil nation's right to self-determination including secession if that is what they want. Without that clear commitment, the programme is, at best, only calling for “self-government” within the existing Sri Lankan state.

That, in itself, would be a limitation on the democratic right of the Tamil nation. In other words, the programme calls for recognition of the democratic rights of the Tamil nation, but only within the limits of the existing state established by the British and with a Sinhalese majority. That would mean that the Tamils would not be allowed to control their own foreign policy, defence policy, perhaps not even their own economic policy; those absolutely fundamental preconditions for self-rule are only to be exercised by the existing Sri Lankan state. What the programme gives with one hand, it takes away with the other!

Another formulation, “the national problem can be fully solved only under a government of the oppressed classes” adds confusion regarding the relationship between the national struggle and the class struggle. Inasmuch as the “solution to the national problem” is only understood as the granting of autonomy within Sri Lanka, it would mean that a working class government would also deny the Tamils their right to self-determination.

However, this is clearly also an attempt to recognise that the bourgeois leadership of the Tamil community will prove unable to resolve the question. Given the current collaboration of the TNA with the likes of Sarath Fonseka and the Buddhist chauvinists, who could argue with that! However, as the presidential election itself showed, the TNA does have the support of the majority of Tamils at present. How to overcome that, how to build a working class party that can win the leadership of the Tamil community, is the key question that is not addressed in the programme. In effect, the existing formulation would mean putting off the solution of the national question until after the revolution!

The right to national self-determination is a democratic right and we would propose that its solution is rooted in taking forward the completely justified democratic demands of the Tamils but in a way that can bring working class forces to the forefront. Just as the real democratic issues facing existing Sri Lankan society are resolved in the programme by the call for a constituent assembly, and we add that this can and will only be convened by the working class and its plebeian allies, so the essential precondition to the Tamils exercising their democratic rights is a Tamil Assembly and that also is very unlikely to be convened by the existing bourgeois leadership, it will need the creation of mass working class organisations to make it happen.

The programme of a working class party in Sri Lanka today should, therefore, include this demand and both its Sinhalese and Tamil members should fight for it in all arenas. In this way, the working class movement, led by a party based on such a programme, can come to be seen by the Tamil masses as their ally and can play a role in ensuring that, whatever constitutional form the Tamils may themselves choose, independence, autonomy, a federal solution or whatever, the working class of both nationalities will be best placed to fight for its social programme of anti-capitalist revolution throughout the island.

Taken as a whole, then, the programme adopted by the Left Front for its “common candidate” has both strengths and weaknesses and would have to be characterised as centrist in that it combines elements of the revolutionary programme with imprecise, potentially misleading, formulations that blur the distinction between reform and revolution. Nonetheless, centrism is almost by definition a transient condition and as Trotsky pointed out, for organisations it is always necessary to establish the direction in which they are moving and for many of the organisations within the Left Front it represents a significant shift to the left. This is particularly true for the Front Line Socialist Party whose origins lie in a form of Maoist Stalinism.

Programmes, however, should not be viewed solely as documented or codified political strategies isolated from the political practice of their supporters and it is in this sphere that real problems can be seen with the election campaign of the Left Front. In this, the programme played really no role at all and in particular not for the FLSP which, as the biggest component of the Left Front and the party from which the candidate, Duminda Nagamuwa, was drawn, was by far the most visible and active organisation.

Writing in the immediate aftermath of the election, Nagamuwa explained that for the FLSP, “the number of votes did not matter. We thought of presenting an idea of Socialism to the society”. (Frontline, January 2015) It is certainly true that we should not judge the effectiveness of a campaign merely by the number of votes but limiting propaganda to “presenting an idea of Socialism” is not the same as using an electoral campaign to fight for a programme that can lead to socialism. Just as in the programme adopted, socialism is left unconnected to the struggles of the working class here and now.

This is, in effect, the method of the Second International; speeches about socialism but no strategy for achieving it by linking it to day to day struggles. As a result, the campaign was not used to win people to the practical tasks that are necessary today; democratically controlled workplace organisations that can mobilise to demand increased pay and working conditions but also to fight against the fragmentation of the working class by unifying trade unions; self-defence organisations to protect pickets and also working class and minority communities under attack either from property developers or fascists; women's and youth organisations to advance their quite distinct interests and, to coordinate and lead all these struggles, a new party of the working class.

Without a focus on these issues and practical steps to organise workers around the strategy of the programme, it is inevitable that the election campaign will have left little behind it. That represents a missed opportunity but it is often the case that more can be learnt from mistakes than from victories. Now that it is clear that the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government will bring forward parliamentary elections, all those organisations committed to the resurrection of the Sri Lankan working class movement need to learn the lessons of the presidential campaign. That is a pre-condition for taking maximum advantage of the much more open conditions of a parliamentary election. The Left Front could play a positive role in this by providing a forum in which those lessons can be discussed and clarified.

The Main Parties in Sri Lanka

The United National Party, UNP, the traditional party of the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie, before Independence, it supported “dominion status”, British bases and British officers in armed forces. Together with Tamil and Muslim parties, it formed a coalition government after the British left in 1947. One of its first acts was to disenfranchise the Tamils of the plantation regions, one of the main bases for Fourth International party, Lanka Sama Samaja Party, LSSP and the Communist Party. It remained in power until 1956 when it was defeated by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. It was again in government in the periods 1965-70, 1977-94 and 2001-04 and also held the Executive Presidency after the office was created in 1978 by UNP leader and then first President, Julius Jayawardene until 1994.

Sri Lanka Freedom Party, SLFP, formed in 1953 as a split from the UNP by Solomon Bandaranaike, a Buddhist Sinhala Nationalist as a “left of centre” party, opposed to concessions to other religious groups as well as the pro-Western orientation of the UNP. Formed government in 1956, introduced the Sinhala Only Act. After assassination of its founder, his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became PM and nationalised several sectors such as Banking, Insurance and Transport. This attracted the support of the Communist Party and the LSSP, both of which have remained allies. SLFP opposed Jayawardene's neo-liberal policies in early 90s and won both presidency and parliamentary elections in 1994 under Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Bandaranaikes' daughter, who then adopted neo-liberal policies herself. In the 2005 presidential election, the party formed an electoral alliance, the United People's Freedom Alliance whose candidate was Mahinda Rajapaksa, previously the SLFP prime minister.

The United People's Freedom Alliance, UPFA, was originally formed between SLFP and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, JVP as an electoral alliance against the UNP in 2004, it was then joined by five other minor parties, later that year, in preparation for a general election, an agreement was also reached with the CP and the LSSP to stand on the same list. The JVP left the UPFA before the 2010 presidential election, giving its support to the “common candidate” of the opposition to Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka. As a result of the defeat of Rajapaksa in January 2015, leadership of the UPFA passed to the new leader of the SLFP, Maithripala Sirisena.

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, (People's Liberation Front) JVP, founded in 1965 by Rohana Wijeweera as a revolutionary socialist party that rejected not only the “old Left” of Sri Lanka, the LSSP and the CP, who had joined the SLFP government of Bandaranaike, but also both the Moscow and Beijing wings of the international “Communist” movement. Wijeweera oriented the party towards the Sinhalese rural youth. In 1971, the JVP launched an insurrection against the SLFP government. This was repressed at the cost of the lives of 15,000 mainly youthful JVP members. In the aftermath, the JVP turned towards organising urban workers and established a number of trade unions, which it mobilised against a general strike in 1980. Between 1987 – 1989, it launched another insurrection against the UNP government, exploiting Sinhalese chauvinism in response to the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. Its entire leadership was liquidated by state forces by 1990. The party was revived in the mid 1990's and adopted the electoral strategy it has pursued ever since.

Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Lankan Socialist Party) LSSP. Founded in 1935 by returned students from UK who had been influenced by Marxism. Subsequently, the leaders sided with Trotskyism and, after internal splits and reunifications in the 1940s, the party was recognised as a section of the Fourth International. After the defeat of the LSSP-led general strike of 1953, the party turned towards electoral pacts with the SLFP. In 1962, the defeat of an attempted right wing coup against SLFP government strengthened both the LSSP and the CP. In 1964, LSSP majority agreed to join the SLFP-led coalition government and the LSSP was expelled from the Fourth International. In the early 70s, LSSP had 18 MPs and ministers in government but in 1975 its ministers were expelled. By the end of the decade it had no MPs and in 1980, as the result of the UNP government defeat of a general strike, the LSSP, like all parties of the “Left”, went into steep decline. Since 1994, the LSSP has oriented towards electoral blocs with the SLFP, currently in the form of the UPFA.