National Sections of the L5I:

Statement on the Sri Lanka 2009 Presidential Election

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Statement on the Sri Lankan Presidential election by the Socialist Party of Sri Lanka

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory in the Presidential election, and the campaign with which he won it, have cast a clear and unremitting light on Sri Lankan society in general and politics in particular. Despite a plethora of minor candidates, only two mattered – and both represented everything that is reactionary in our country.

Both expected to ride to victory on the tide of blood with which, together, they finally overwhelmed the vastly outnumbered and outgunned forces of the LTTE. Both hypocritically claimed that they now wanted nothing more than to unite in friendship with the Tamil community. At the same time, both assured their own supporters that Sri Lanka is, and will remain, a Sinhalese country.

That Rajapaksa came out victorious in this contest owes much more to his control of the media and harassment of his rival’s supporters than to any intrinsic merit. State-controlled media provided blanket coverage for the President but effectively ignored his opponents. Independent election monitors recorded 809 incidents of election-related violence. The Independent Election Commissioner, Dayanada Dissanayake, complained of his officials being harassed and chased away from election counts and found his own position so stressful that he asked to be allowed to resign.

Yet, although some have called Rajapaksa’s victory a “landslide”, his greatest shock was that he had to fight a contest at all – he had imagined that he would be returned to office virtually unopposed. That 40% of those who voted sided with Fonseka reveals a deep discontent within the Sinhalese community itself. Even here, the record of corruption and nepotism, suppression of civil rights and repression of free speech, for which Rajapaksa has made Sri Lanka famous, prompted voters to look for an alternative.

But what of Fonseka? Fresh from the killing fields, his principal motivation was that he had not been given more credit for the slaughter. Not surprisingly, his main support came from the ranks of the JVP and UNP, politicians who had also scrambled to support the “final offensive” and were now disappointed that they had not been sufficiently rewarded either.

Facing each other as Sinhalese chauvinists, both candidates realised they needed support from Tamil voters, so both looked for allies among the “established” and “respectable” political operators within that community. Sadly, neither had any difficulty finding them. Figures such as Thondeman of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress who stuck with Rajapaksa or R. Sambandan of the Tamil National Alliance who opted for Fonseka, have made their careers out of such collaboration.

At a national level, over 74% of the electorate voted and of these, 98% voted for Rajapaksa (58% of votes cast) or Fonseka (40% of votes cast). These dismal figures record just how far the poison of Sinhalese chauvinism has seeped into the body of Sri Lankan society. The overall voting figure obscures the fact that less than 20% voted in many Tamil regions – a result not only of political disaffection but also of political repression.

This is the reality that confronted revolutionaries in Sri Lanka when the election was called. During the war, several different left wing currents adopted a principled position of defence of the rights of the Tamil community, opposition to Rajapaksa’s record of increasingly authoritarian government and support for workers’ struggles against rising prices and threats to employment. Recognising this, the Socialist Party of Sri Lanka (SPSL), the Sri Lankan section of the LFI, proposed that such currents adopt a “common candidate” to maximise a principled intervention into the election.

We argued that such a candidate should stand on an “action programme” that included defence of the right of self-determination, demilitarisation of the war zones, right of return for Displaced Persons, support for workers’ struggles on pay, jobs and public services, the building of workers’ councils to lead and coordinate those struggles and calling for a workers’ and farmers’ government based on those councils and committed to a planned socialist economy to rebuild the island.

Although the groups involved did agree to the idea of a common candidate, Vikramabahu Karunarathne of the Left Front, our proposed programme was rejected. Indeed, the idea that the candidate should have any clear programme at all was rejected in favour of the slogan “No votes for War Criminals”. To match this minimalist, and politically vacuous, slogan, the objective of the campaign was declared to be to stop either of the two main candidates gaining a victory in the first round.

For us, such a campaign was an exercise in futility. The value of bourgeois elections lies, first and foremost, in the increased interest in politics that they arouse within the public in general and the working class in particular. They offer an opportunity for revolutionaries to explain and argue for the programme of revolution to a far wider audience than can normally be reached. To give up that opportunity in order to try to maximise the number of votes is simply to fall into the trap of electioneering, what Lenin called “electoral cretinism”.

Because of this, the SPSL did not support the campaign of Vikramabahu Karunarathne, the “common candidate”. At meeting after meeting around the country we argued that what the working class needs is not a campaign around minimal slogans but a fight for a revolutionary programme and a workers’ party to implement it. Despite the declared objective of blocking a first round victory for either main candidate, Bahu’s low level campaigning actually brought him a lower vote than in 2005, down from 9,200 to 7,055.

Nor could we support either Siritunga Jayasuriya of the United Socialist Party (USP) or Wije Dias of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP). These candidates represented the two extremes of the spectrum from opportunism to sectarianism. Continuing its policy of accommodation towards the bosses’ party, the UNP, the USP has shared platforms with the UNP’s leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and saw its vote collapse from 35,000 in 2005 to 8,000. This campaign ended appropriately with Siritunga shaking hands with none other than Mahinda Rajapksa himself at the official declaration of the result.

Meanwhile, the SEP proved once again that, although it is trenchant in its critique of the existing workers’ leaders, it can develop no tactics with which to win workers to new leaders. Its sectarianism, which includes rejection of the Tamils’ right to self-determination, reduces the revolutionary programme to a sterile dogma. The slight increase in its vote, from 3,500 to 4,195, may be some comfort to the SEP but, as Trotsky insisted, the revolutionary programme is for the action of millions, not the contemplation of a few.

Neither was there any candidate who, despite an inadequate programme, could be seen as genuinely representing the struggle of the working class or socially oppressed and who we could, therefore, support critically. At one point it appeared that the TNA MP, Sivajilingam, might emerge as the representative of the Tamil struggle but, when the TNA leadership decided to urge support for Fonseka, it became clear that Sivaji had not established himself as such a representative.

Whether or not Fonseka’s threatened legal challenge ever materialises, it seems certain that Rajapaksa’s victory will stand. The immediate prospect is that he will seek to press home his advantage while the JVP and UNP are still in disarray by dissolving Parliament and calling a hurried general election. His purpose, as with the early Presidential election, will be to strengthen his position ahead of the stormy times that lie ahead.

Sri Lanka’s economic position ensures that the next government will enforce an austerity package to reduce government spending. The country’s geographic position ensures that it will also become a target for the attention of the great powers, in particular the US, China and India. Inevitably, Rajapaksa will try to play one off against the others to gain some advantage, some assistance.

For the workers and the oppressed of Sri Lanka, effective defence of their living standards, their jobs and their rights will require a determined struggle; demonstrations, occupations, pickets, strikes and the whole range of militant fighting tactics up to the general strike and insurrection. To lead such struggles will require a political leadership independent of all exploiters and all states. It will require the building, in other words, of a new workers’ party in Sri Lanka, a party that has learnt the lessons of the degeneration of the LSSP and of the Fourth International.

The SPSL will continue to propose to the comrades and leaders of the Left in Sri Lanka that we collaborate in the building of such a new party – not ignoring real differences where they exist but agreeing to debate those differences within the framework of a new mass-based workers’ party in which all are free to argue their positions but all agree to accept majority decisions. For us, the parliamentary elections will provide the first opportunity to begin this work and we urge revolutionaries and working class activists throughout the country to work together to field candidates who clearly stand for the overthrow of capitalism, the building of a workers’ state and the formation of the Fifth International.

SPSL, Executive Committee, Feb 3 2010