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Sri Lanka: US-backed government takes office

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After three weeks of public manoeuvring and who knows what private deals, Sri Lanka now has a new government. The elections of August 17 gave no party an absolute majority in the 225 seat parliament but, as expected, the United National Party, UNP, the main bourgeois party, topped the poll with 106 seats. Its leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe, could have formed a coalition government with smaller parties, such as those representing the Muslim and Tamil communities, but instead chose an alliance with the other big bourgeois party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, SLFP, which had a majority in the previous parliament but is now reduced to 95 seats.

This is being presented as a magnanimous gesture in the interest of national unity. In reality, it is the continuation of the US-backed strategy to break up the SLFP which, under the former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, turned the country towards China.

The first phase of that strategy saw Maithripala Sirisena, one of Rajapaksa's senior ministers, form a covert alliance with the UNP and other opposition parties as their “common candidate” against Rajapaksa in last January's presidential election. Sirisena won and, as President, not only became the leader of the SLFP but appointed Wickremasinghe as prime minister even though his own party still had its majority in parliament.

From the point of view of the UNP and its international backers, the ideal result in the parliamentary elections would have been a devastating defeat for the SLFP, leaving the UNP to form a majority government. However, Rajapaksa used the electoral campaign effectively to rally his supporters around a virulent Sinhalese chauvinism and the SLFP, while defeated, easily remained the second biggest party.

It is, however, a party divided. Wickremasinghe's coalition proposal drove a wedge into the SLFP with Rajapaksa's supporters, some 50 MPs, rejecting the proposal while others accepted cabinet posts. The “rejectionists” even argued that, as the second party, the SLFP should be recognised as the Opposition, despite also being in government!

The question of who should be recognised as the Opposition is not just a formal detail since the Leader of the Opposition has significant rights and privileges in parliament. It was resolved by first appointing the deputy leader of the UNP, Karu Jayasuriya, as the Speaker of parliament. In this capacity, he then formally recognised the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, as the Leader of the Opposition although the TNA only won 16 seats.

Sampanthan immediately declared that he would “oppose what was bad in government policy but support what was good”, which is another way of saying that he and the TNA are giving conditional support to the government. In this way, the Tamil parties, who supported Sirisena in the presidential election but stood independently for parliament and did not enter the coalition, have been given a degree of recognition within the ruling establishment. In the election, they won 14 of the 18 seats in the Northern province with 70 percent of the vote.

The Speaker also formally declared that the UNP-SLFP government constituted a “Government of National Unity” so was not bound by the constitutional limit on the number of government ministers. Having condemned Rajapaksa for misuse of public funds by handing out government posts to seal political deals, Wickremasinghe immediately proposed to increase his own government from 70 to 93, no doubt for much the same reasons.

While all this political horse-trading has given the government a very solid parliamentary majority, the need for it underlines the range of political interests that have had to be accommodated. Over time, the coalition may be more fragile than it now appears. Its first test will come with the UN report on the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, LTTE, the “Tamil Tigers”, due to be published this month. If it provides grounds for the prosecution of members of the Rajapaksa administration and armed forces, that will put a huge strain on relations between the SLFP and other members of the coalition.

In the past, both UN and US representatives called for an international inquiry into the war as a way of pressurising the pro-Chinese Rajapaksa. In his turn, Rajapaksa whipped up Sinhalese chauvinism around a completely bogus “anti-imperialist” opposition to such foreign interference.

Now, with Sri Lanka turning back towards the “West”, the Obama administration has let it be known that, with the right terms of reference, a Sri Lankan “domestic” inquiry would be acceptable. That formula might allow a compromise between Sinhalese, Tamil and, importantly, Indian, leaders, but will not lead to the thoroughgoing investigation that could only be carried out by a democratically accountable public inquiry with full investigative powers.

In the longer term, there is the even more fundamental problem of economic policy. Wickremasinghe has kept the economic and development portfolios for himself and is a staunch supporter of neo-liberal policy. Under the previous, short-lived, minority government, a request for a $4 billion support package was turned down by the IMF but that money is still required and the new government will use its solid majority to vote through whatever terms the IMF demands.

In order to concentrate the minds of his mixed bag of ministers, Wickremasinghe has limited the coalition to just two years. In that time he intends to force through an entire programme before any concerted opposition can emerge. Such a strategy is almost guaranteed to give Rajapaksa opportunities to rally his forces not only in parliament but, more importantly, on the streets in alliance with the clerical fascists of organisations such as Bodu Bala Sena.

The Left
If, for the bourgeoisie, the election results represented not an ideal outcome but at least a viable government for the time being, for the Left, they were a complete disaster. Once again, the Communist Party, CP, and the once-Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaaj Party, LSSP, stood as part of the SLFP's electoral alliance. When it was defeated, they rejected any participation in the new coalition. While some may have thought this heralded a move to the Left, nothing could be further from the truth; both parties have sided with Rajapaksa and the Sinhalese chauvinists.

The biggest of the parties claiming to represent the working class and standing independently of both bourgeois alliances, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, (People's Liberation Front) JVP, which once claimed to be Marxist but has now adopted an openly pro-business policy, presented a lavish advertising campaign and anticipated winning up to 20 seats. It actually gained only six.

Very significantly, this was the first real electoral test for the Frontline Socialist Party, FSP, which split from the JVP in 2012 with the stated intent of founding a new revolutionary party. It stood in all 22 districts, hoping to gain seats from its National List on the basis of the total vote across the island. However, more than 30,000 votes were needed for just one seat and the FSP's total was only a little over 7,000. Its candidates gained between 0.02 and 0.04 percent of the vote in most cases. This puts the FSP on a par with the tiny groups such as the United Socialist Party (CWI) the Nava Sama Samaaj Party (Fourth International) and the Socialist Equality Party (ICFI).

In the districts where they stood, these groups generally gained 2-300 votes. Any suggestion that differences of one hundred or so votes, here or there, have some political significance is, frankly, not serious. As we explained before the election, to use an election to raise the profile of revolutionary politics is entirely valid, even if the votes won are minimal, but none of these groups stood for a revolutionary programme, preferring instead entirely abstract principles or a diluted, centrist, programme. As a result, despite the efforts of their members, these groups have done nothing to advance the revolutionary cause in Sri Lanka.

All the Left groups have to face up to what these results say; their political method, acting as if they are mass parties when actually they are small propaganda groups, has actually prevented them overcoming their isolation. The task now is two-fold; to organise the small number of revolutionaries on the basis of a clearly defined programme and to take that programme into the coming struggles of the working class and oppressed. Within those struggles, the political priority has to be winning the mass organisations of trade unionists, women, students, youth, the nationally oppressed, to the building of a genuinely mass new workers' party.