Saturday, December 27, 2014

1994 Sri Lankan Presidential Election

The third presidential election in Sri Lanka was held in unique circumstances. The United National Party government, which had come to power in 1977, had fallen in the General Election of August 1994. It had been defeated by the People’s Alliance, an alliance of opposition parties led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Soon afterwards, the country was preparing for a presidential election.

The changing political currents had been evident for a few years during the tenure of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. After his election victory in late 1988, Premadasa appointed D.B. Wjietunga, a less prominent figure in the UNP, as his Prime Minister, perhaps hoping to neutralize his more formidable rivals within the party. He ruled the country in a populist which was ruthlessly slammed by his opponents as a personality cult. There was considerable gravity to certain accusations leveled by the opponents.

It was at this juncture that certain rivals within the UNP and some opposition leaders joined in a scheme to oust the president. Their plan was to impeach the president. However, the plan did not work and Premadasa rivals in the UNP, including Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, left the party. They formed a new political party, the Democratic National United Front (DUNF) with the eagle as its symbol. This party was to become a thorn on the side of the UNP in general and on Premadasa in particular. Its effect was somewhat similar to the effect of Sri Lanka Mahajana Party on the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in the 1980s.

By 1993, opposition forces were growing in strength against the UNP regime. This was in a way strengthened by two tragic assassinations which happened a week apart. On April 23, 1993, Lalith Athulathmudali was assassinated at an election rally, during the Provincial Council Elections. Many fingers were pointed at President Premadasa, who was seemingly disturbed by the amount of criticism leveled at him. He publicly made a mind boggling statement, stating, “Kill me if you want, but do not assassinate my character.” Days later, on May 1, he was killed by a suicide bomber in broad daylight.

Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, the sitting Prime Minister, became the president without being elected. His was a totally different character to the former president and perhaps also felt the tide turning. Therefore, he decided to call for a general election months before term of the parliament was to expire.

Gamini Dissanayake had rejoined the UNP after the death of president Premadasa. Meanwhile Anura Bandaranaike defected to the UNP when his sister Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s entry to the SLFP sidelined him. The opposition saw a fresh political leader in the form of Chandrika, who could defeat the UNP regime. In the August 1994 election, this is precisely what she did, thereby becoming the Prime Minister.

President DB Wijetunga decided to call for a presidential election immediately after the general election. Nominations were accepted on October 7 and the election was held on November 9. Six candidates came forward as prospective contestants and they included Prime Minister Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Gamini Dissanayake from the UNP.

Chandrika and the People’s Alliance (PA) were riding high in popularity. She had initiated a peace process with the separatist rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This decision, while viewed by some with suspicion due to the prior conduct of the LTTE, was a popular decision. Kumaratunga increased her popularity among the Tamil community as well.

Meanwhile, the UNP came out of the general election in an internal crisis. There were two camps in the party, supporting Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the Prime Minister from May 1993 to August 18994, and Gamini Dissanayake. President Wijetunga decided to ask the 91 members of parliament elected in August 1994 to decide on whom to be the presidential candidate. With a slim majority, Dissanayake was selected.

The other candidates included four interesting faces. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or the People’s Liberation Front, was returning to politics after the insurrection of 1987-1989. Their party was not still registered, and therefore the JVP came to politics under the banner of Sri Lanka Progressive Front. Nihal Galappaththi had surprisingly won a parliamentary seat from Hambantota District in August 1994. He was selected as the party’s candidate for presidency.

Meanwhile, a Sinhalese Nationalist party came to the presidential election for the first time, in the form of Sinhale Mahasammatha Bhoomiputhra Party. Its leader Dr. Harischandra Wijayatunga contested the election. Meanwhile Hudson Samarasinghe and former Cabinet Minister AJ Ranasinghe contested as the first ever independent candidates in a presidential election in Sri Lanka.

The campaigning started in earnest after nominations were accepted on October 7. There was considerable interest in the general public on the election. Clearly the underdog, Gamini Dissanayake launched a strong campaign. However, on the night of October 24, tragedy struck as a suicide bomber blasted herself at an election rally in Colombo. Fifty people died, including Dissanayake and several other leaders of the UNP. Ossie Abeygunasekera, the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party candidate from the 1988 presidential election was also on the stage and succumbed to his injuries two weeks later.

The bomb had exploded the day before the next round of talks with the LTTE. All fingers were pointing at the LTTE but Prime Minister Kumaratunga was reluctant to put the blame on it for fear of jeopardizing the peace talks. It was a delicate issue. Meanwhile, the UNP itself was in another crisis as it was forced to find a replacement candidate. Srimathi Dissanayake, wife of the late Gamini Dissanayake, was chosen by the party to contest the election. Thereby, it became a race between two women candidates.

Meanwhile the JVP created a political discourse unlike never before when it offered to support Kumaratunga on the condition that she abolishes the executive presidency. Kumaratunga gave a written assurance that she would do so by June 15, 1995, and Galappatti asked his supporters to vote for her. This was seen by some critics as an opportunist move by the JVP. The argument was based on the assumption that the JVP would have done poorly in the election. According to the critics, what the JVP did was finding an excuse to hide their inability to get a considerable amount of votes.

The PA’s presidential campaign was focused on several important aspects, namely the peace process, executive presidency and the unanswered questions on several assassinations which had happened during the UNP regime’s tenure. People wanted answers and people wanted their hopes to be realized. In this backdrop, and after the assassination of Dissanayake, there was no meaningful race for the presidency. Despite the sympathy factor, Srimathi Dissanayake could not attract enough votes to be a challenge, as she was a political novice.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga became the first female president of Sri Lanka, pollind 4,709,205 votes at a record 62.28 percent. Srimathi Dissanayake polled only 2,715,283 percent votes at 35.91 percent. The electoral map was all PA, with Kumaratunga winning the race in 159 constituencies out of the 160. The sole constituency carried by Srimathi Dissanayake was Mahiyangana, where she polled 24,842 votes at 56.3 percent while Kumaratunga polled 18,218 votes.

One important aspect of the election was the hope for peace, which drew the Tamil and Muslim communities towards Kumaratunga. While the election could not take place in a meaningful way in the North, it was held in the Eastern Province, and Kumaratunga won in almost all constituencies with thumping leads. In Padirippu constituency in the Batticaloa District she polled 40,489 votes at 94.2 percent and also won in several other constituencies with more than three fourths of the vote. She received all 56 postal votes casted in Jaffna District. There were several other seats where she received a 100 percent vote but only a handful of the votes were casted in those seats.

Unfortunately, Kumaratunga could not keep most of the promises she gave. The peace process ended with a treacherous LTTE attack on two Navy gunboats in April 1995. The fortunes of the war swayed from side to side but fighting continued for almost seven years before another peace process was attempted. Meanwhile, the deadline given to the JVP to abolish executive presidency expired, and nothing was done. Inquiries were held on several high profile political assassinations which took place during the UNP regime period. However, speculation and conspiracy theories are still abundant on almost all the assassinations investigated.

Kumaratunga’s presidency during her first term had mixed fortunes, but she could perhaps sense her popularity fading. She decided to call for an early presidential election in 1999, with one more year still left in her presidency.

First published on 'The Nation' on December 14, 2014

Monday, December 22, 2014

1988 Sri Lankan Presidential Election

Sri Lanka’s political climate deteriorated dramatically after the 1982 Presidential Election. In 1983, after the Black July events, the separatist war in the north and east escalated. Meanwhile, the JR Jayawardene government blamed the Black July on three leftist political parties, imposing a ban on them. Thereby, Sri Lanka Communist Party, Nava Sama Samaja Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna were proscribed. While the bans on the other two parties were subsequently lifted, the JVP remained banned for years.

The separatist war, which was waged by a number of militant groups to carve out Tamil Eelam, a separate state for the Tamil people, opened a new path for India to intervene in the affairs of Sri Lanka. It is known that the central government in India under Indira Gandhi wanted to apply pressure on the West-leaning United National Party (UNP) government of JR Jayawardene. It is known that India supplied weapons and training to the nascent Tamil militant groups.

A new chapter in Sri Lanka’s war separatist war and the Indo-Lanka relations opened with the sighning of Rajiv Gandhi-Jayawardene Indo-Lanka Accord of July 29, 1987. This created a huge uproar of protest by many opposition parties, including the main opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) arrived in Sri Lanka to oversee the peace process in the north and east. However, the JVP launched an armed insurrection in the Sinhalese majority areas and by October 1987, the peace process has broken down in the north and east. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were engaged in a full-fledged war against the IPKF in the north and east while the south was burning due to the JVP insurrection.

It was in this backdrop that the presidential election of 1988 had to be held. JR Jayawardene was barred from seeking a third term due to constitutional restraints. He actually had a 5/6 majority in the parliament and could have amended the constitution. There were also calls for him to do so since some people thought he was the best person to face the multiple crises the country was facing. However, he was now an octogenarian and was perhaps unwilling to go through this. Therefore, Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa was selected as the UNP candidate in the presidential election.

There were to be only two other candidates in the election, making it the presidential election with the lowest number of candidates. The SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who had not been able to stand in the 1982 election due to the seven year ban on her civic rights, came forward as its candidate. Her seven year ban from public life had ended in 1987. Meanwhile, Oswin (Ossie) Abeygunasekera came forward as the candidate of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP).

The Sri Lanka Mahajana Party was a breakaway group from the SLFP, led by the actor turned politician Vijaya Kumaranatunga. On February 16, 1988, he was assassinated by unknown gunmen, making him one of high profile political killings in that dark era. Inaugurated on January 22, 1984, the SLMP has been viewed for a few years as an alternative to the docile SLFP as the main opposition party. However, it remained a relatively small party and was one of the few political parties which had supported the Provincial Councils introduced as a solution to the separatist war.

Nominations were accepted on November 10, 1988, and the election date was set to December 19. The election took place at a time where being a member of a political party or engage in politics was a reason enough to have someone killed. The LTTE in the north and east, and the JVP in the rest of the country, were opposed to the elections. People did not turn up on election rallies in fear of being killed afterwards. There was also a death threat to anyone who voted in the areas where the JVP had influence. In much of the north and east, even holding the election was out of the question.

Both Ranasinghe Premadasa and Sirimavo Bandaranaike promised ask the Indian troops to leave the country, one reason for the JVP insurrection as well. The sentiments were high against the presence of these troops in the country. However, by this time, the JVP was not limiting their demands from this. It was seeking political power and therefore was aiming to disrupt the democratic elections.

With this environment of fear and intimidation, the voter turnout was 55.32 percent, a record low for a presidential election in Sri Lanka to-date. There were allegations of election fraud and therefore, there is no way in which one can declare if this turnout was authentic, especially in the areas under the JVP and LTTE threat.

According to the final official results, Ranasinghe Premadasa won the election with 50.43 percent of the votes. Sirimavo Bandaranaike polled 44.95 percent and Ossie Abeygunasekera polled 4.63 percent. Interestingly, this is the highest percentage of votes received by a third candidate in a Sri Lankan Presidential Election to-date.

According to official results, the Vanni Electoral District, comprising of the three Administrative Districts of Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya, saw the lowest turnout at 13.79 percent. Moneragala, Hambantota and Matara Districts also saw low turnout due to the JVP threat. Only 17 percent of the votes in Moneragala District were casted. Voter turnout was highest at 80 percent in Nuwara Eliya District where JVP threat was relatively minimal.

In electorate level, the lowest percentage of votes was polled in Hakmana Electorate in Matara District. It was just 4.45 percent. In the same district, only 7.45 percent voted in Kamburupitiya. In the Moneragala Electorate, the turnout was 6.51 percent and the turnout was lower than 10 percent in Minneriya Electorate in Polonnaruwa District also.

The election victory of Ranasinghe Premadasa could not be accepted as a true mandate of the people as most people were unable to vote due to threats. The threat on the election affected all candidates. However, since the JVP had more influence in areas where the political left had more popularity, one could argue that Sirimavo Bandaranaike was affected more than Premadasa. She won the highest number of votes in five Districts, namely Gampaha, Kalutara, Galle, Matara and Jaffna. Out of them, voter turnout was especially low in Galle, Matara and Jaffna. However, in constituency level, even some UNP strongholds showed lower voter turnouts than district averages. There is no credible manner in which one could calculate the effect on each of the candidates.

However it is clear that the third candidate had little impact on the final outcome, as Premadasa had won more than 50 percent of the votes. It is said that Ossie Abeygunasekera broke votes from the SLFP camp. It could be assumed that had he not been a contester and it had been a matter between the two main candidates, Sirimavo Bandaranaike could have done better. But still, it could not have been enough to defeat Premadasa.

Under the circumstances, even if the election was completely free of threats and intimidation, Ranasinghe Premadasa might have won it. He was a populist leader and a man who rose in politics starting from the common man’s level. Therefore, he was a champion of the poor people and he had given a clear pledge to ask India to withdraw the IPKF. At 64, he was relatively younger than his main challenger, who was almost a decade older. Abeygunasekera was relatively much younger at 38 years. He was perhaps too young in the eyes of the population to be the president of the country.

Ranasinghe Premadasa carried out one major promise of and successfully negotiated the withdrawal of the IPKF. Meanwhile the JVP was also destroyed. However, the peace process Premadasa started with the LTTE became a controversial matter and ultimately collapsed. He was both deeply hated and deeply loved by different sections of the population. Premadasa died on May 1, 1993, in a suicide attack attributed to the LTTE.

First published in 'The Nation' on Dec. 07, 2014

Thursday, December 18, 2014

1982 Sri Lankan Presidential Election

Contrary to common belief, executive presidency was not introduced to Sri Lanka by the 1978 Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. The constitution came to force on August 31, 1978. But executive presidency was introduced by the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka, or the 1972 Constitution. The amendment was passed by parliament on October 4, 1977 and the then Prime Minister Junius Richard Jayawardene became the first executive president on February 4, 1978.

Although the executive president was to hold office for six years and give oaths on February 4 after the election, JR Jayawardene saw the political currents starting to go the other way in early 1980s. The leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), former Prime Minister Sirimavo RD Bandaranaike, had been deprived of her civic rights. The SLFP was on one side licking its wounds while on the other side adding more wounds by engaging in internal power struggles. The 1980 July Trade Union Action had been a watershed moment in Sri Lanka’s political and trade union history. It had destroyed the backbone of the trade union movement.

Deprived of any meaningful voice within the parliament, the opposition took the battle against the government to the streets. This new opposition was represented on one side by the youthful members of the SLFP spearheaded by young leaders of the likes of Vijaya Kumaratunga, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Ossie Abeygunasekera. On the other side there were the new forces on the left, such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led by its charismatic leader Rohana Wijeweera and the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) which had broken off from the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). Meanwhile a more militant alternative force was showing its first signs of emergence in the north.

President JR Jayawardene perhaps sensed that the currents were turning in an irreversible manner and decided to take control of the situation. On August 27, 1982, the Parliament passed the Third Amendment to the Constitution allowing the president to seek re-election after four years in power. Soon after, the president called for a presidential election, the first ever in Sri Lanka.

The presidential election was a new phenomenon for the island nation. It was the first time the whole country was becoming a single constituency. It was going to be an all island contest between individuals. JR Jayawardene had an advantage on the outset as the president and the leader of a unified party. Other opposition parties were either too small or too divided to challenge the UNP.

The SLFP was in a crisis as to who should be the candidate of the party. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who could not contest, wanted her son Anura Bandaranaike to be the party’s candidate. Meanwhile, there was a sizeable group within the party against the idea of him contesting. These, mostly the younger members of the party, wanted Hector Kobbekaduwa to be the SLFP candidate.

Kobbekaduwa was an exemplary politician, so much so that he had lost almost all that he owned due to politics. The Minister of Agriculture in the 1970-77 government, he was 66 years old, a decade younger than JR Jayawardene. He had attracted a lot of criticism from his family as the land reforms had lost them considerable amounts of land. His brother had divided even the ancestral home to two to claim his half after land reforms. When Vijaya Kumaratunga and a few others went to meet him, they had a hard time convincing Kobbekaduwa to contest.

“My house has been divided. My shirts are all patched up. I am broke despite being a Cabinet Minister once. How am I supposed to lead a campaign? Please find another person,” he had reportedly said. But Kumaratunga had been adamant and said that they will somehow fund the campaign. After fending off various underhand acts against Kobbekaduwa’s candidacy, the young blood of the SLFP managed to get the approval of the party.

Nominations were accepted on September 17, 1982 and six candidates came forward for the first ever presidential election of Sri Lanka. Apart from the UNP and SLFP, four other parties put forward candidates and there were no independents. The LSSP leader Dr. Colvin R de Silva represented the old guard of the left. There were two more left parties, the NSSP put forward Vasudeva Nanayakkara and the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera also contested. Meanwhile, arguing that Tamil votes should go to a Tamil candidate, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) leader Kumar Ponnambalam also contested the election. Meanwhile, the main Tamil political party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) did not contest.

Dr. Colvin R de Silva had his own argument of the election. He reportedly said that Hector Kobbekaduwa represents a party which has a leader with no civic rights. As such, he said a vote for Kobbekaduwa was a vote wasted. Meanwhile, JR Jayawardene once said that “if I am not elected, the next best candidate is Dr. Colvin R de Silva.”

Nevertheless, the LSSP was being challenged by the two left forces which represented a new radicalization of the left. The JVP had led a rural based violent revolution to overthrow the government in 1971. The insurrection was ruthlessly crushed and its leaders imprisoned. But after his electoral victory, JR Jayawardene pardoned the JVP leadership and allowed them to enter the mainstream politics. The JVP made clear that it was rejecting armed struggle and embracing electoral politics. In certain areas, especially in the southern province, it made a considerable impact on the political arena. For example, in the Galle by-election in December 1979, Lionel Bopage of the JVP polled almost 10 percent of the votes, far exceeding Victor Ivan, a former JVP leader, who contested from the LSSP ticket.

Meanwhile, the NSSP also represented a younger but small force which had broken off from the LSSP old guard.

The election date of the 1982 Presidential Election was set for October 20. While the UNP campaign moved forward, the SLFP campaign had to face two threats, namely the state intimidation and internal challenges. Many of the speeches of the SLFP campaign rallies had been recorded and some of them were used as evidence to arrest Vijaya Kumaratunga and several others on trumped-up ‘Naxalism’ charges by the government. Many years later when he was in the UNP, Anura Bandaranaike said on a TV interview that ‘Vijaya and his friends might have not known what the word Naxalite really meant.’

However, at the time of the election, Anura Bandaranaike and a few others had distanced themselves from the SLFP, reportedly mocking the candidate, Kobbekaduwa. “Our candidate even does not have money to buy petrol to his car” Bandaranaike reportedly said.

Nevertheless the campaign went on. Kobbekaduwa was given a hearty reception by the people in Jaffna. Given that a Tamil politician was also contesting this was something extraordinary. Kobbekaduwa, as the agriculture minister of a government which had promoted self sufficiency may have had respect in the eyes of the Jaffna people. They had been hit really hard by the open market policy of the UNP. For them, Kobbekaduwa might have been a hero. Since he was the only likely candidate to defeat JR Jayawardene, a sizable section of the people in Jaffna saw him as the best alternative to the president.

One major ‘political coup’ by the SLFP stalwarts was printing a replica of the ‘ration book’ which had been discontinued under the UNP government which was elected in 1977. It was Ossie Abeygunasekera who masterminded the ‘coup.’ It was a political manifesto, with a catchy line “Janathavagen uduraagath bath patha navatha janathava athata” (The rice ration deprived from the people, back to the people).

However the election was done in a background of intimidation by the government. JR Jayawardene had a considerable popularity and political thuggery and election fraud complemented any shortcoming in his popularity. He carried all but one of the electoral districts, and won in many of the constituencies. However, JR received a rude shock when Ponnambalam and Kobbekaduwa pushed him to a distant third in Jaffna District.

Nevertheless the election had ended with a resounding victory for Jayawardene. But the ominous signs of the need for change were glaringly evident and could not be hidden by fraud and intimidation. Jayawardene received only 20 percent of the votes in Jaffna when Kobbekaduwa polled 35 percent and Ponnambalam polled 40 percent. Meanwhile JVP leader Wijeweera received 15 percent of the vote in Hambantota District and passed the 5 percent mark in a few other districts as well. This was a rude shock to Dr. Colvin R de Silva as well. The LSSP leader only received 58,531 votes (0.90 percent) while Wijeweera polled 273,428 (4.19 percent) of the vote. The eclipse of the old left was on the cards from the 1982 Presidential Election, if not before.

First published in 'The Nation' on Nov 30, 2014

Sunday, December 7, 2014

We are building up an alternative - KD Lalkantha

Western Provincial Council Member KD Lalkantha is a key leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and is active in the labor movement. In an exclusive interview with ‘The Nation’, he discussed the stance of the JVP on the presidential election, and the changes needed to be done to the political system. Excerpts:

Q: The Front Line Socialist Party (FLSP) has made its entry into the election and is making its presence felt in the election as a movement in the left. But the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is absent from the contest. Don’t you think that the FLSP has obtained a chance to voice their opinion while the JVP has not?

A: The JVP has represented people’s rights as a left wing movement, whether there are elections or not. In this election we are conducting a unique campaign as a left movement. We have already conducted several meetings. We will continue to conduct the campaign until January 5. We have planned a comprehensive and large scale campaign. For example, we will have a program of distributing leaflets in places island-wide and the leaders of the party will be involved in this campaign in Colombo. We have also planned a program of going to house to house to talk to people. There will also be grass root level meetings in a village level.

Those who do not have a political organizational strength think that politics cannot be done through not contesting elections. Some groups pop-up during election times since they do not have political organizational strength at other times. We have the strength to mobilize people whether there is an election or not.

Q: Are you afraid that you cannot get more votes than certain groups?

A: We do not have such fears. We can either choose to compete or not. Or else we can form alliances and compete. It all depends on our assessment of the political situation of the country and our strategy.

At this moment, if we decide to compete separately, the anti-government votes will be split. It will be advantageous to Mahinda Rajapaksa. At this point, we have to focus on defeating the president. Therefore, anyone who is acting in an advantageous manner towards Rajapaksa, even indirectly, can be considered as his pawns. In some cases, they are actually nurtured and aided by Rajapaksa government. They might appear as opponents of Rajapaksa but actually they are helping him.

Q: There is considerable discussion on various aspects like good governance. However, there seems to be a little discourse on the capitalist system and its inequalities. In your absence in the campaign can the JVP voice the concern on the system?

A: As a movement of the proletariat, our ultimate objective is to overthrow the capitalist system. However, the social, political, economic and cultural conditions should mature to a certain level for that to happen. Also, there should be an organization based on the working class to take advantage of these conditions and lead the process of toppling the capitalist system. Once these conditions are satisfied, whether elections are held or not, the system will collapse. Capitalist systems were not overthrown through elections in other places in the world. But it needs the correct conditions.

However, we believe that the conditions and also the organization are still in the process of maturing. Therefore, until then, our objective is to win certain social reforms which will ultimately help the overthrow of the capitalist system. For example, if we can get the 17th Amendment implemented, it is an advantage.

Today, government service is politicized. Recruitment, transfers and promotions are all politicized. If there can be a more just system in it, it will help our struggle. If the police, elections process, and judicial system can be wrested out of the control of the bourgeoisie rulers, and if media freedom can be assured, they will all be advantageous for a movement of the proletariat to grow, organize and promote their ideology.

These freedoms will not be granted by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. Therefore, once this government is toppled, we can get a relatively free environment for a certain period of time. Of course, it will not be permanent. If the Maithripala Sirisena government stays in power for a long time, it will also become a part of the capitalist ruling class and develop the structures that will help it consolidate its power. But, for a certain period of time we can have a relatively free period.

However, we are not asking the people to vote for anyone in particular. Since we do not contest, we cannot ask people to vote for a particular candidate who is not a member of our party. We do not have a right to do it either. We have been criticized by both the government and opposition for this stance. But what we say is that there are things to be done after January 8 and people should organize for that.

Q: But you said at this juncture, Mahinda Rajapaksa must be defeated. The JVP does not want anti-government vote to split. You also mentioned that all those other candidates are in a way helping Rajapaksa by splitting the vote. So, isn’t this stance indirectly helping Maithripala Sirisena?

A: Yes. It helps the presidential election candidate Maithripala Sirisena. But we cannot take responsibility for that. We cannot take the responsibility for what Maithripala Sirisena will do after he comes to power. But what we want is to organize the people in order to win their rights. We cannot forget that people have won their rights mainly through organized struggles.

Q: According to the Marxists view, the system is more important that the person. In that sense, by focusing on one person in the form of Mahinda Rajapaksa, aren’t you forgetting the system and changes that needed to be done?

A: Marxists believe that the fundamental basis of the capitalist system should be changed. But in Sri Lanka, one person has become supreme by the constitution that is in place now. Executive Presidency has made this happen. So, we have to abolish executive presidency and replace it with a parliamentary system. Today, even though there is a parliament, it does not have meaningful powers. One should not be mistaken by the notion that a parliamentary system will solve the problems of the people. It will not. It will not change the fundamentals of the capitalist system. But it will be a better environment than having executive presidency.

Q: It means that this moment is not the right time for a third force?

A: The word “third force” is wrong. Then one can ask, ‘so who are the first two?’ This is a term introduced by the capitalist system itself. The word itself has a meaning that it is a lesser force. What we think is that we need an alternative force against the capitalist system. This will rise through the labor movement of Sri Lanka. The JVP has now established itself in the working class movement better than any other party. Therefore, we are in a position to build the alternative force.

Q: But Sri Lanka has a relatively small labor movement. Some people criticize traditional left movements for not being able to reach to other sectors. Where did the left movement go wrong?

A: All sectors such as farmers, students, women and others are important. The JVP is building up its strength in these sectors as well. But they are not vital when it comes to putting pressure on the rulers. They are required but not vital. The vital sector driving a left movement is the working class even if it is small.

The mistake the JVP made initially was to base its struggle on the students’ movement. The rulers can close universities and schools for several months or even years. It will not affect the ruling class. But what if they close down a factory for five days? What if the service sector such as health and electricity supply is interrupted for a few days? The capitalist system will end up in a serious crisis. That is why the labor movement is important. The JVP had to replace the reactionary old left movement from the labor movement but now we have become the main driving force there.

Q: But why does not it transfer to votes. The JVP had 39 members in the parliament at a time. But its representation has shrunk dramatically.

A: A left movement cannot be judged by the number of parliamentary or other elected seats. We have fought for the rights of the people in the last few years even better than when we had so many members of parliament. In the recent years, we were able to stop government’s plans to rob the EPF and ETF funds. We managed to stop the government from increasing the electricity prices from Unit 1 itself. We managed to restore the farmers’ pension scheme. All these came about as a result of a struggle, even when we have only a few parliamentarians. The only advantage in having elected members is that we can voice our opinion there as well. But that is just one part.

Q: But a poor electoral performance can affect the perception of the public. They might think the JVP is weak.

A: There are certain drawbacks in not focusing only on elections. But once elections are over, people will come back to us to ask for help to win their rights.

Q: Coming back to the presidential election, the Jathika Hela Urumaya signed a separate agreement with Maithripala Sirisena, not entering the Memorandum of Understanding which the others signed. Why didn’t the JVP take a similar measure?

A: The JHU is a separate entity and is not based on the working class. It is more of a Sinhalese nationalist organization. Their agreement is based on their strategies and ideology. For them former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremeseinghe are reactionary. The JHU wanted to have an agreement separate from those people. The JVP is a working class movement. We plan our strategies according to our goals. That is the difference.

First published in 'The Nation' on December 7, 2014.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

FLSP aims to make the Presidential Election a platform

Frontline Socialist Party (FLSP) Propaganda Secretary Pubudu Jayagoda stated that his party aims to promote an ideology different from the two main camps involved in the presidential election campaign. It is in this backdrop that Duminda Nagamuwa intends to contest in the presidential election as a candidate of the left.
Duminda Nagamuwa

He said that both Mahinda Rajapaksa camp and Maithripala Sirisena camp have been engaged in a discourse dominated by liberal intellectuals. While there has been a considerable discussion on the constitutional matters and on large projects, not much attention has been given to the economy in the people’s level. The FSP believes that Sri Lanka needs a leftist alternative to empower people and raise the need for a policy change.

Jayagoda added that by now a section of the Nava Sama Samaja Party and also the Socialist Party has extended the support to Duminda Nagamuwa. The FSP was also in discussion with several other parties and groups and hopes that they will also support it, Jayagoda further mentioned.

Speaking on the campaign, Jayagoda said that the FSP has planned a rally in Colombo immediately after the nominations are handed over. However, its campaign will be a community based one, he added.

Originally published in 'The Nation' on Nov 30, 2014.