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Sri Lanka: victory divides the victors

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Sri Lanka's Executive President, Mahinda Rajapakse has confirmed that there will be a presidential election on January 26, two years before the end of his present term. While it was always likely that Rajapakse would seek early re-election in the wake of the military victory over the Tamil Tigers, the emergence of a serious opponent has added urgency to the call.

Having torn up the previously agreed ceasefire agreement and launched an all-out military offensive on an unprecedented scale, Rajapakse expected to take all the "credit" for subsequent victory. However, the personality cult around the President that has dominated the media since the end of the war has provoked hostility in many quarters, not least within the army itself. The decision by General Sarath Fonseka, who commanded the offensive, to resign from the army and to stand down as Chief of the Defence Staff was accompanied by government-inspired rumours of a possible coup. Fonseka’s decision, therefore, was immediately understood as more than just an outburst of injured pride.

Nor was concern at Rajapakse's policy restricted to the top brass of the armed services. Fonseka is widely regarded as pro-American at a time when Sri Lanka is developing ever closer ties to China. His decision to declare himself as a candidate in the forthcoming presidential election, therefore, may have more than just local significance.

The very fact of his candidacy is a threat to Rajapakse's electoral strategy of securing another six years in office by maximising support from the Sinhala community who make up 75% of the electorate. Paradoxically, the two men most personally responsible for the barbaric bombardment of the Tamil regions and the subsequent imprisonment of over 300,000 Tamils now have to seek electoral support from the opposition parties and the Tamil community in order to tip the balance in their favour.

Already, the spineless opposition parties, led by the UNP and the JVP, who not only supported the military offensive but helped to whip up the chauvinist hysteria against all who opposed it, have adopted Fonseka as their common candidate.

While the Tamils certainly should not be fooled into supporting either candidate, this major split in the ranks of the Sinhala chauvinists may work, at least temporarily, in the Tamils' favour. This week has seen the first significant relaxation in the restrictions placed on the "Internally Displaced Persons" in the internment camps. Providing they have been "cleared" by the security forces and have been registered, inmates may now leave the camps for up to two weeks.

In the weeks leading up to the election, further concessions to the "moderate" Tamil organisations and, more broadly, to the mass of the population who have to bear the costs of the war, can be expected from both Rajapakse and Fonseca. They will prove to be of little value once the eventual victor is in office. The harsh reality is that either will then set about introducing cuts and austerity measures and will use the poison of communal rivalry to try to divide any fightback.

For the vast majority of the people of Sri Lanka, of whatever community, the choice between the two warmongers is no choice at all. The declaration of "unconditional support" for Rajapakse from the Ceylon Workers' Congress, the biggest trade union confederation on the island, and the equally wholehearted support for Fonseka from the JVP, a supposedly Marxist party, however, show just how deep the crisis of leadership in Sri Lanka's working-class really is.

With Sri Lankan society facing the costs not only of reconstruction after the war but also the impact of the global economic downturn and the conditions attached to the $2.6 billion loan from the IMF negotiated by Rajapakse, overcoming that crisis is an urgent necessity. If nothing else, the presidential election has created a degree of political space within which the Sri Lankan left could take steps forward in resolving this crisis.

A recent conference of organisations that opposed the war discussed the possibility of standing a common candidate for the presidency. The Socialist Party of Sri Lanka, (SPSL) the Sri Lankan section of the League for the Fifth International, argued that the crucial issue was to use the election period to campaign for a revolutionary action programme linking defence of the Tamils' right to self-determination to the struggle for the economic interests of all the workers and farmers through mass mobilisation, the formation of workers' and farmers' councils and the building of a new workers' party.

Although no agreement has yet been reached, at a press conference on December 10, the Nava Sama Samaj Party (NSSP) the Fourth International's Sri Lankan section, presented its leading member, Vickramabahu Karunarathne, as the "common candidate". While the SPSL did not approve of this procedure, at the press conference its National Secretary, Mahinda Devege, emphasised that the fundamental issue was the political programme of the candidate and called for a campaign centred on defence of the Tamils’ right to self-determination and the need to fight for a workers’ and farmers’ government based on workers’ and farmers’ councils.

Such a campaign would allow principled collaboration between the existing different groups and could prove an important step towards the revival of an independent working-class movement and, above all, a new workers' party committed to the overthrow of capitalism in Sri Lanka.