In a bitterly fought election in Sri Lanka marred with violence and corruption, where one of the highest number of voters participated, South Asia’s longest reigning executive president was ousted by a ruling party dissident with the backing of a disparate coalition. Sacked president Mahinda Rajapaksa (right in picture) lost to his party general secretary Maithripala Sirisena (left in picture) by almost 4,50, 000 votes at the election held on the 8th of January. Although the loser left the presidential mansion following pressure from global powers, he threatens a comeback to regain power.
Rajapaksa who came to power in 2005 was re elected in 2010 riding on the wave of triumphalism following the 2009 military defeat of Tamil Tigers who fought for autonomy in the north and east of the island for almost thirty years. The Sinhala majority voted him in as the ‘saviour of the nation’. The war conducted with the active participation of international global powers was a massacre that later prompted international condemnation. The UN that recorded at least 70, 000 civilian deaths in the final phase of the war has launched an international inquiry against war crimes and crimes against humanity. Sri Lanka has vehemently denied that any civilians were killed, refusing to take part in any investigation. A Catholic leader from the war zone dominated by Tamils, Bishop Rayappu Joseph says that the whereabouts of over 1,40,000 people are unknown. The horror of the war was televised to the world in acclaimed documentaries not shown in Sri Lanka. After overtaking the Tamil homeland it has been heavily militarized. Under pressure from its donors and human rights campaigners the regime was forced to conduct an election for the north that overwhelmingly voted for the third largest party in parliament, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) campaigning for self governance and the rehabilitation of war victims. TNA efforts to arrive at a power sharing arrangement through dialogue have been stymied by the government. Activists who took part in protests against militarisation in the Tamil dominated north lived in constant fear. The recent arrest and detention of Jeyakumary Balendran and her teenage daughter who were in the forefront of campaigns seeking the whereabouts of the disappeared is a stark reminder of the situation faced by Tamils in the north. The genocidal attack against Tamils was carried on.
A dictatorship in the making
Shunned by western powers on human rights grounds, the government has been depending on China for funding. Most of the loans on high interest rates have gone to building highways and mega constructions. Corruption by the ruling clan and cronyism was rampant in these construction projects and nearly half of the national budget was allocated to the Rajapaksa brothers. The feared Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa employed draconian anti terrorist laws and was accused of utilizing extra judicial measures to brutally crush any dissent. Rights activists and journalists who were publicly accused as traitors and Tamils who feared persecution were hunted down and many were forced to exile. External debt has risen over 24 billion US dollars. Protests by workers, students, rights activists, peasants and fisher folk in the Sinhala dominated south against the economic hardships was met by brutal force. The judiciary was manipulated to the dictates of the regime. Hundreds of Muslim and Christian places of worship were attacked by government sponsored Buddhist extremists. The regime was a fascist dictatorship in the making.
With a weakened parliamentary opposition and the majority Sinhalese tricked to believe of a perceived threat from ‘Tamil seperatism’ in partnership with a foreign conspiracy to ‘tarnish the image of the motherland’ Rajapaksa called a snap poll. The pro liberal major opposition United National Party (UNP) engineered a major split in the ruling United Peoples Front Alliance (UPFA) and nominated the party general secretary who was a key minister in the regime as the candidate of a newly formed coalition that had parties advocating free market economy to those calling for a welfare state. Sinhala extremists as well as Tamil and Muslim parties joined the coalition whose sole aim was to defeat Rajapaksa and abolish the executive presidency. The Sri Lankan section of the Fourth International, the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) while fielding their own candidate, publicly gave critical support to the coalition candidate Maithripala Sirisena. Although small in numbers, the NSSP was consistent in its campaign with opposition forces to build a mass movement that opposed the regime and stood for power sharing.
Sirisena’s main pledge to the electorate was to get rid of the corrupt ruling regime and re establish democracy in the form of empowering the parliament, establishing an independent judiciary, bringing back rule of law, ending corruption and reforming the political system. He has promised to attain his goals within 100 days of election. Although he did not promise any solution to the national question, Tamils and Muslims backed him in full. The ruling party campaign was totally based on Sinhala racism harping back to the war victory against Tamils and glorifying massive infrastructure projects, a burden on the economy.
Voters favoured the challenger
However, while the majority of Sinhalese backed Rajapaksa, it was the numerically small nationalities that overwhelmingly voted for Sirisena. In areas whee the working class was concentrated, Although Maithripala Sirisena was voted in by over 70 percent of voters who dominated the North and East, only 48.54% from the rest of the country have chosen him as their leader. While Mahinda Rajapaksa has managed to get 24.32% of the North and East votes, over half of the Sinhala dominated electorate has voted to give him a third term in office. Tamil workers of Indian origin from the plantation sector also gave Sirisena a resounding victory. He appointed the leader of the opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe as his prime minister.
Rajapaksa has been accused of plotting a military coup when he sensed defeat. Key supporters of the winning candidate Sirisena who earlier said that Rajapaksa ‘graciously conceded defeat’ now say that pressure had to be brought to make him leave. Now he has made a comeback creating a major split in the main party of the ruling coalition. Both factions addressed the media proclaiming that they were the majority. Taking control of the party is a key factor in commanding the majority of in parliament. A constitutional dual power climate has arisen where the popular mandate is challenged by a disgraced despot who tried every fascist trick to get back to the helm.
Supremacist and anti Tamil rhetoric
Although Sirisena claimed ‘peoples power against corrupt power’ if his due victory was not allowed smooth passage, he has not appealed to the masses. Instead he seems to have resorted to manoeuvres within the party to woo parliamentarians with offers of ministerial portfolios. He has already appointed a cabinet of ministers where those who are pro west have an upper hand. Rajapaksa, who has been a populist leader, has already started appealing to the Sinhala masses with his supremacist and anti Tamil rhetoric. However, popular resentment has made him back off from the streets. The parliament is to meet on the 19th of January which will be the short term battle ground for Rajapaksa who used to hold a majority an Sirisena who is the elected president.
If the elected president and his alliance does not call for the support of the masses who voted him to office among severe hardships, it is inevitable that they will lose their hard won victory.
The NSSP that has already initiated the campaign to unite the forces of oppressed nationalities, leftist and peoples’ organisations who actively participated in this mass struggle, so that we can take action and intervene to achieve the goals that the masses fought for: Freedom and democracy.