Sri Lankan government wins a hollow victory in provincial elections

By K. Ratnayake
16 February 2009

The ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won Sri Lanka’s provincial council elections held on Saturday, with a clear majority in Central Province. The outcome for the other province—Northwestern—has not been announced as a rerun has been called in one booth in Puttalam district following alleged vote rigging. Results to date, however, indicate that the UPFA will also secure control of that provincial council.

 

President Mahinda Rajapakse immediately seized on the election results to justify his government’s communal war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In a statement issued yesterday, he claimed the poll was a “victory for all those who love [the] motherland,” “encouragement for [our] war heroes” and an endorsement of the government’s program.

 

Despite Rajapakse’s boasting, the election outcome was not an endorsement of the war or the government’s policies. Above all, the vote for the UPFA reflected the collapse of any alternative by the major opposition parties—the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)—which openly support the war.

 

The campaign took place in a political climate of fear, intimidation and de facto media censorship. Any opposition to the war or criticism of government policy was denounced by Rajapakse and his ministers as undermining national security and assisting the “terrorist Tigers”. Over the past two years, hundreds of people have been murdered or “disappeared” by death squads operating in collusion with the security forces.

 

By joining the government in hailing the army’s victories over the LTTE, the opposition parties endorsed not only the war, but the savage attacks on democratic rights and the economic policies that flow from it. The UNP and JVP attempted to appeal to widespread resentment over falling living standards, but their criticisms were limited to blaming government corruption, not the impact of the war and the global economic crisis.

 

The disaffection and hostility felt by broad layers of voters over the war, rising unemployment, the rundown of essential services and the assault on democratic rights simply had no voice in the political establishment. Rajapakse turned the election into a “referendum on the war” and met no resistance from the opposition parties. The UNP, which signed a truce and initiated talks with the LTTE in 2002, publicly praised the government for its military policies—that is, tearing up the 2002 ceasefire and restarting the war.

 

In this context, some 35 percent of voters simply chose not to cast a ballot at all. Others were prevented from doing so. At least 60,000 eligible voters were barred from voting due to a lack of identity cards or identification papers. Most of these were Tamil-speaking plantation workers in Central Province, who are among the most oppressed layers of the working class in Sri Lanka.

 

The UPFA increased its tally of seats in the provincial council in Central Province to 34, up from 30 in the 2004 elections, at the expense of the UNP and JVP. The UPFA also made gains in the predominantly rural Kurunegala district in Northwestern province increasing its seats to 24, from 20 in 2004. 

 

Significantly, the UPFA did not win the Nuwaraeliya-Maskeliya polling division, where plantation workers predominate. In that area, there is widespread hostility and disgust towards the ruling coalition, which includes the two traditional parties of the plantation workers—the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and the Up-country People’s Front (UPF).

 

Plantation workers have been hard hit by skyrocketing prices for food and other essentials and are bitter over the role of the CWC and UPF in sabotaging industrial action to improve wages and conditions. The workers are subject to systematic anti-Tamil discrimination as well as police harassment and persecution over alleged support for the “Tiger terrorists”.

 

Fearing any electoral reverse, Rajapakse poured state resources into the area in a bid to buy off voters. Just two days before the poll, the government allocated 343 million rupees (about $US3 million) to the development of infrastructure in the plantation areas. New buses were provided to some state transport board depots and the foundations laid for new buildings and roads.

 

Despite all of these efforts, the UPFA did not secure a majority of votes in the Nuwaraeliya-Maskeliya district. Most votes went to the UNP, not out of positive support for the opposition party, but as a protest against the government. Only 68 percent of registered electors cast a ballot. Of those, 8 percent spoiled their papers, in many cases to register their disgust with the political establishment as a whole.

 

The UNP lost seats in both provinces. The party now holds 22 seats in Central Province, down from 26 in 2004. In Northwestern Province, while the outcome is still to be finalised, the UNP won just 9 seats in Kurunegala district, down from 12 in 2004. The UNP’s chief ministerial candidate for Central Province, S. B. Dissanayake, offered no explanation, other than to complain that “the people supported the government’s war efforts.” 

 

The results were a devastating setback for the JVP, which combines a strident defence of the war with the whipping up of Sinhala supremacism and populist demagogy about defending the poor. The party lost all of its 12 seats in Central Province, and appears likely to win only one in Northwestern province—in Kurunegala district—down from six in 2004. With the exception of Kurunegala, its vote collapsed to less than 3 percent. Its chief ministerial candidate for Central Province, Samansiri Fernando, blamed the voters, declaring that people had “deprived themselves” by turning their back on the party.

 

For a decade prior to the 2004 elections, the JVP functioned as a useful safety value for the political establishment amid rising disaffection with the two major bourgeois parties—the UNP and Rajapakse’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The JVP bitterly opposed the 2002 ceasefire and supported President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s dismissal of the UNP government. It campaigned in alliance with the UPFA in the 2004 national and provincial elections, made significant electoral gains and joined Kumaratunga’s cabinet.

 

Since then the JVP has been thoroughly compromised. Having joined the cabinet, the party promptly broke its election promises and dashed expectations among its largely Sinhala rural base of an improvement in their poverty-stricken lives. In the 2005 presidential election, the JVP campaigned for Rajapakse’s victory and, even though it remained on the opposition benches, helped pass the government’s regressive budgets.

 

Waning popular support led to a debilitating split in the JVP last year—over whether to distance the party from the government or not. A faction led by JVP parliamentary leader Wimal Weerawansa broke away to openly back the Rajapakse regime. In the provincial elections, Weerawansa campaigned alongside Rajapakse, directing his sharpest attacks on the JVP.

 

The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) was the only party in the elections to oppose the war and demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all security forces from the North and East of the island. As its candidates explained, the party’s demand did not imply political support for the LTTE and its program of Tamil separatism, but was aimed at unifying workers—Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim—independently of all the parties of the ruling class in the struggle for a workers’ and farmers’ government based on socialist policies. The SEP’s perspective was summed up in its call for a Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and Eelam as part of the struggle for socialism throughout South Asia and across the globe.

 

The SEP contested two districts—Puttalam in Northwestern province and Nuwara Eliya in Central province. In the course of the campaign, party candidates, members and supporters distributed some 40,000 copies of the SEP statement “Sri Lankan SEP stands in provincial election to oppose war and attacks on democratic rights” in Sinhala, English and Tamil as well as other articles, statements and comments posted on the WSWS.

 

The SEP’s campaign was not based on empty promises or electoral manoeuvres, but was directed at providing the working class with a program and perspective with which to defend its interests. Candidates explained the historic roots of the war in the decades of anti-Tamil discrimination that has been exploited by successive bourgeois governments to divide the working class. They placed the situation in Sri Lanka in the context of the deepening global crisis of capitalism.

 

In direct opposition to the militarism that dominated the official campaign, the SEP won a small but significant vote in both districts. In Nuwara Eliya, the party received 98 votes, virtually all from plantation workers, and in Puttalam, 114 votes to date. All of these were class conscious votes for a socialist alternative to the crisis created by the profit system and its political representatives. The SEP calls on all of those who supported our campaign and voted for our candidates to seriously study the party’s program and perspective and to join and build it throughout the island and the South Asian region.