[lg policy] Sri Lanka: The Left takes a back seat

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Sep 4 15:23:50 UTC 2015

The Left takes a back seat in Sri Lanka
By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
<http://newint.org/contributors/lasanda-kurukulasuriya/> | 1

 8  7
[image: Election posters in Sri Lanka [Related Image]]
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

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, 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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