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The Left takes a back seat in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka
Election posters in Sri Lanka

Election posters for Mahinda Rajapaksa. SLFP members loyal to the ex-President have caused a split in the newly elected government. Meanwhile, leftwing parties have suffered a heavy defeat. Vikalpa/Groundviews under a Creative Commons Licence

The first sitting of Sri Lanka’s new parliament took place this week amidst some uncertainty. Following the United National Party (UNP) election victory, negotiations continue on the formation of a national government, with a number of MPs from the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) expected to be given ministerial portfolios. The new cabinet is yet to be announced. One thing that’s clear is that the Left will no longer wield much clout. Earlier, though few in number the leftist MPs held important positions.    

This time, parties from the traditional Left collectively won just 2 seats, down from 5 in the previous parliament. The worst-hit casualty was the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP, literally the ‘Lanka Equal Society Party’) which now has no representation. Its leader, Tissa Vitharana, says the LSSP is ‘used to this’ and will play a role in the opposition, continuing to be active in provincial councils, local government bodies and trade unions.       

The LSSP, founded in 1935, is the country’s oldest political party and has had a foothold in the socialist-oriented SLFP’s coalition governments since 1956. Vitharana was Minister of Technology and Research in former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLFP-led United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition. But the LSSP opposed the Executive Presidency and called for its abolition. It has also always opposed the language policy introduced by the SLFP in 1956, which made Sinhala the country’s sole official language. Tamil has since been given official status, but this single issue more than any other is believed to have contributed to the continuing discord between the Sinhala and Tamil communities.     

Vitharana had expected to be appointed an MP through what is called the National List. It allows for 29 of the 225 seats in the legislature to be filled through nomination by parties according to the proportion of votes polled by them.     

There has been much controversy over the UPFA’s National List because President Maithripala Sirisena, who is leader of both the SLFP and the UPFA, gave 7 out of its allocated 12 seats to SLFP candidates who lost out in the 17 August election. Others, like Vitharana and Communist Party leader D E W Gunasekera, who were in the original list, were dropped. The calculation behind this unexpected move may be the president’s need to consolidate his control over the party which, even after the election, continues to be split between those supporting Rajapaksa and his own loyalists. ‘The president “working with the UNP to set up a national government” really means the rightwing of the SLFP joining the UNP,’ says Vitharana. ‘Rather than having a strong opposition, which is what democracy is about, he’s trying to weaken the SLFP opposition.’     

Apart from a section of the SLFP that won’t join the national government, the other parties in the opposition will be the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The Marxist JVP is distinct from the ‘old Left’ in that the party had its origins in armed struggle. It won 6 seats, far short of its anticipated 10 to 15. Many say its campaign helped the capitalist UNP. ‘The JVP’s concentrated attack on Mahinda [Rajapaksa] only helped the UNP to gather extra votes,’ said D E W Gunasekera.

Gunasekera, formerly Minister of Rehabilitation and Prisons, says that the new government would be better described as a coalition between the UNP and SLFP. ‘From the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, the much-needed class unity has been achieved in order to face the impending domestic and international challenges. The prompt support from the West testifies to this fact of class unity.’

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s electoral success was hailed by Western powers, notably the US and European Union, which were wary of Rajapaksa’s tilt towards China. The US had brought 3 resolutions against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council, the last of which called for an international probe into alleged wartime atrocities. In a significant policy shift, Washington recently said it would offer a new resolution in collaboration with Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in September, backing a credible local investigation.

The US has lauded President Sirisena’s determination to ‘win the hearts and minds of Tamils’, a task Rajapaksa failed to accomplish after defeating the separatist LTTE in 2009. But there is scepticism in the Left as to whether the government’s new best friend will really help.

There is no resolution that is “favourable”, according to Tamara Kunanayakam, a former Sri Lankan diplomat who has worked for over 15 years with UN agencies, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. ‘The objective of the new government, whether run solely by the UNP or in coalition with the SLFP, which is also a bourgeois party, is to pursue a neoliberal economic policy,’ Kunanayakam said in an email interview. ‘Policies that make the country even more vulnerable to Western transnational corporations and banks cannot be done without abandoning national sovereignty and independence.’

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