National Sections of the L5I:

Sri Lanka: Vote Left Front … and organise to fight!

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Having first amended the constitution to allow himself a third term in office, in November, Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to hold a presidential election on January 8, two years before his current term expires. His motive was not difficult to see; in September his Alliance had seen its share of the vote decline sharply in Provincial Council elections and he calculated that another two years would put that third term out of reach.

His bold move was no doubt influenced by the weakness of the main opposition parties. Speaking to his Health Minister, Mithripala Sirisena, shortly before announcing the election, he is reported to have confided that he was very confident because there was no alternative candidate of any significance and the opposition parties were all divided.

His choice of confidant was misguided; as soon as the election was announced, the same Mithripala Sirisena was declared the common candidate of all the major opposition groups and parties, some 48 organisations in all. It has since become clear that this had been clandestinely organised, very probably with US backing, well in advance, at a time when it was widely assumed that the only possible challenge to Rajapaksa would come from the former prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party, the traditional party of the island's bosses.

Rajapaksa divides the country ...

Since then, 25 of Rajapaksa's parliamentary supporters have “crossed the floor” and openly sided with Sirisena who has also gained the backing of the Muslim Congress and the Tamil National Alliance. In the last opinion polls published before the election, the president and his challenger were running neck and neck. This certainly reveals the hostility to Rajapaksa that has built up since his barbaric victory over the Tamil independence movement in 2010.

Rajapaksa's family, his three brothers are respectively the Minister of Defence, the Minister for Economic Development and the Speaker of Parliament, is now reckoned to be responsible for some 85 percent of all government spending. Such a concentration of power and patronage means that other sections of Sri Lanka's ruling class and their hangers-on have been excluded. Promising to change that is the basis of Sirisena's campaign.

As a long standing senior figure in government and the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party that formed the Alliance with Rajapaksa, all claims to past differences over policy are entirely bogus. Sirisena, for example, was the Defence Secretary at the time of the final bloodbath in which Tamil civilians were slaughtered indiscriminately to bring the war to an end.

Where there may indeed be a policy difference is with regard to foreign policy. Where Rajapaksa has favoured a turn towards China and attracted important investment funds for infrastructural development in particular, Sirisena is known to have close links to the US through the Clintons.

… and the Fourth International

What his record and perspectives make clear is that Sirisena does not represent any kind of fundamental change from Rajapaksa, he is merely the candidate of a different wing of the local bourgeoisie with backing from a different imperialist power. There should be no question of any working class organisation supporting his candidacy.

Yet, the Sri Lankan section of the Fourth International, the Nava Sama Samaj Party, NSSP, has done exactly that. Vickramabahu Karunaratne, the long standing leader of the NSSP, had actually gone so far as to canvass support for the UNP's 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 “fascist regime”. This, however, was too much at least for some of his comrades in the NSSP who have begun publishing a separate newspaper, Left Voice, in which they call for a vote for the candidate of the Left Front.

The Left Front is certainly the most important development on the Sri Lankan left in many years. It was established at the initiative of the Front Line Socialist Party, FLSP, a left-moving split from the JVP, the formerly Maoist party whose Sinhalese chauvinism brought them into alliance with Rajapaksa against Wickremasinghe's UNP government in 2005 and from then on into Rajapaksa's government.

After the split, what was to become the FLSP recognised the need to review the history of its former party and resolved to work towards a new party of the left, which would reject chauvinism but also the “stages theory” of revolution. This process is clearly not yet complete but the proposal for a united left election campaign around an agreed programme was a positive step that was supported by the Socialist Party of Sri Lanka, SPSL, the section of the League for the Fifth International.

The programmatic discussions that followed drew in a wide range of left groups including the Maoist CP, the United Socialist Party (section of the CWI) the post-modernist group, Praxis, the New Communist Party, both wings of the NSSP before it split and the SPSL. The SPSL proposed its Action Programme as the basis for the election campaign but, after this was rejected, agreed to give critical support to the Left Front candidate on the grounds that the programme adopted, although weak in its demands on the national question and formulation of governmental slogans, was explicit in its call for expropriation of the major industries, banks and imperialist landholdings, the formation of workers' and peasants' councils and the introduction of a planned economy.

Moreover, through the different organisations involved, the Left Front had genuine links to trade union organisations representing some 20 percent of the unionised workforce. This put its candidacy in a different position from that of the United Socialist Party which, although it voted to support the common programme, walked out of the Left Front because it insisted the candidate should be a USP member.

The decision to mount a united election campaign, and to use the campaign primarily to argue the case for revolutionary socialism, has paid dividends in the opinions of the parties involved, each of whom was free to present its own propaganda and speakers at campaign meetings. The final rally in Colombo attracted some 1,500 supporters and was a successful conclusion to a campaign which covered the whole island and raised the arguments for a revolutionary solution to the island's deep-seated problems.

Whichever of the mainstream bourgeois candidates wins the election, their programme will be one of continued austerity and privatisation of services. It is entirely possible that the outcome will be disputed because few expect Rajapaksa to “go quietly” even if he does lose. In any event, the workers and peasants of Sri Lanka will need to organise themselves for a fight to defend their interests against the incoming government and its international backers. It will be in that fight that a new revolutionary workers' party for Sri Lanka must be built.