Groundviews

Parliamentary Elections and the Political Emancipation of Sri Lanka

As, in private life, the distinction is made between what a man thinks of himself and says, and that which he really is and does, so, all the more, must the phrases and notions of parties in historic struggles be distinguished from the real organism, and their real interests, their notions and their reality. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire…(p.35).

The current parliamentary election presents a clear division between democratic forces and anti-democratic forces. A victory for democracy would offer a generational chance of resolving some of the fault lines in Sri Lankan society. The Rajapaksa regime won the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) but they used this victory to defeat the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Tamil people. When the Muslim community was attacked the law was not applied and the perpetrators got away scott-free. The war victory was also used to plunder state resources, cover up frauds and corruption and augment personal wealth. Their authoritarian rule maintaining the white van culture brazenly violated the right to life and ’disappeared’ journalists as well as political opponents. Their shrewd use of intimidation and violence against innocent people   was unprecedented in perpetuating their dominance in the democratic political history of this country despite decades of war and emergencies. Members of the traditional left parties ended up being implicated in these misdeeds.

Prior to the announcement of the Presidential election last year the United National Party (UNP) looked a deeply divided party over with various factions fighting on the streets in the South. With the decision to back Maithripala Sirisena, they suddenly appeared to regroup with an almost steely determination. The UNP and the civil organizations that supported   him looked the antithesis of the Rajapaksa regime  – and gave civil society a genuine choice. That is how the long night of the Rajapaksa regime ended and the democratic will of all those who suffered and millions and millions of people were awoken to their democratic rights. The Rajapaksa regime is reluctant take any responsibility for the grave mistakes they have committed and have used the divisive rhetoric of religion and language to arouse the anxieties and fears of the Sinhalese Buddhist people in an attempt to return to power in the current parliamentary election.

Taking democracy as a vital political project, this article pays particular attention to the devolution of power using historical parallels. This is because this has become a major contention between democratic forces and anti democratic forces vying for power in this election. This includes the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) who contest election on their own and who continue to oppose any devolution of power to the Tamil community. And the history of the conflict repeats itself.

The democratic project was initiated and shaped by the old Left in the mid 1930 but they could not sustain in the face of a nationalist surge.  They succumbed to pressure and abandoned the democratic aspirations of ethnic communities. With their electoral demise in the 1977 parliamentary election, the project they had themselves fatally diluted with exclusions went into oblivion with them. This is why a victory for pro-democratic forces offers us a generational chance in resolving our historic problems. The sharpest irony is that this promise does not come from the Left but from the capitalist political formation!

A strong civil, political and constitutional structure is fundamental to any political project to emancipate the people of Sri Lanka and encourage the growth of a peaceful, democratic and socially just political culture. It should encompass all basic democratic rights including, and especially, the democratic rights of minority communities. To these, three other basic components should be added. They are the right to life, free education and access to free health care. Historically, the political parties including armed groups involved in anti state violence as well as the governments in power have attacked the rights and fundamental freedoms

Attacks on these aspirations have been ideological, political and constitutional at times. When the legislation was introduced   limiting the   rights of citizenship of the plantation Tamil community as early as 1948 it was a fundamental constitutional attack. A similar situation arose when the Sinhala only Act was introduced in 1956 that curtailed the language rights of the Tamils. Again the 1972 Constitution granted the foremost position to Buddhism. All these constitutional arrangements over the years made the multi ethnic and pluralistic character of our country untenable and in turn it diluted the emancipatory potential of the democratic political project. This is still on the political agenda as an unfinished business. Some of the discriminatory legislation introduced over the years were supported by the SLFP with the help   of traditional left leaders. Therefore it is not surprising that both the SLFP and the old left leaders are ready to use the Sinhala language and Buddhism to garner the electoral support for this parliamentary election. They claim that their defeat would lead to a separation of the country. This argument is used to prevent the devolution of power to the Tamil community, when in fact it will enable us contribute to correct and reformulate the historical injustices meted out to the Tamil community and uphold their democratic rights.

Armed violence used by political groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) over period of thirty years and   the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) between 1987-1989 in the South  (JVP) have inflicted heavy casualties on Sri Lanka’s democratic culture. These acts of armed violence directed against political activists and individuals who held dissenting views still reverberate. These violent acts not only restricted people’s rights to express their views but also punished dissent with death. The LTTE is now not active anymore following their defeat in 2009 and the JVP has regrouped as a mainstream political party since their defeat in 1989. Today it is being led by the second or third generation of leaders. The JVP claims that they have abandoned the armed struggle.  This has to be cautiously welcomed. They should have done it even before the 1971 insurrection that led to the unnecessarily sacrifice of thousands of youths   in this country fighting against a popularly elected government. Under the banner of Che Guevara the JVP fought the state against his famous advice “where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintain at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted” (Guerrilla Warfare, P.8). When they again fought the state during their second insurrection between 1987 and 1989 against the devolution of power to the Tamil community   under the 13th Amendment the elected government then still had the  ‘constitutional legality’ as before, as far as the elected government was concerned.

The use of armed violence to achieve political objectives is always at variance with the needs of ordinary people in any country.  While they might argue that some curtailment of people’s democratic rights is ‘necessary’ during the armed struggle, the lessons of history show that the abridgements of democratic freedoms become a permanent feature of these struggles and the states they create. This also happened in the LTTE de factstate in the North and East.

Many valuable lessons can be learnt from the JVP and the LTTE closely looking at how they conducted their armed campaigns. The JVP’s claim that they have abandoned the armed struggle has to be viewed in the context of how they behave towards the breakaway group Frontline Socialist Party (FSP). They use physical violence against FSP members whenever and wherever possible. The current election campaign has shown that the JVP is able make a credible appearance as ‘democrats’ without referring to their violent and undemocratic past. However, the JVP still lives up to their historical opposition to granting the devolution of power to the Tamil community, which is a democratic right of the Tamil people. In this respect they are in the same league as the Rajapaksa camp.

But anti -devolution sentiments are alive because it is a vote winner at the expense of the democratic rights of the Tamil community. It is not   rocket science to understand in Sri Lankan politics, it is not   the devolution of power that would lead to divisions between our communities and the country but in fact the absence of a meaningful offer of power sharing that truly threatens the territorial integrity of the country.  The parties who oppose devolution and power sharing should be honest about their lack of commitment to a harmonious future for our country and our people.

The JVP says that they are ‘the conscience of the country’ in their much publicized election campaign but they are nothing more than the conscience of the Sinhala Buddhist supremacy. They have not changed their view since the dark days of 1987- 89, hunting those who supported the 13th Amendment and the devolution of power to the Tamil community. The message to the Tamils is still that they should wait for future a socialist government under their leadership and that would do away with the national oppression! The JVP’s political formation and its origin as a militant Sinhalese party makes it difficult for them rethink their position on the national question critically.

Both the traditional and New Left parties do not offer anything tangible to    exercise the democratic aspirations of the Tamil community and this drives them to the separatist parties. The remaining traditional Left leaders aligned with the Rajapaksa camp are also now walking fast into the oblivion. Their historical promise of fulfilling Tamil democratic aspirations has disappeared with them. Therefore there is a tendency for the Tamil community to move for their own kind of political project excluding others. Their election verdict will reaffirm it again as before.

After the defeat of the Rajapaksa regime in January, open political expression and the lifting of a climate of fear has opened a new wave of freedom, despite the fact that their thugs are still attempting to use intimidation and violence at times during the election campaign. Their efforts to return to power, if it succeeds, will lead to the loss of any progress that has been made this year. And what is decisively important is that the UNFGG’s electoral win over the Rajapaksa camp will be a major step towards strengthening democratic project.

Simply granting democratic freedoms to people will not be meaningful unless it also engenders genuine material improvements. The safeguarding of free education and free health services is one of the most important aspects making our democracy more meaningful to the vast majority of people in Sri Lanka. Already there is a creeping privatization in both these sectors and this has to be stopped.  If there is no adequate funding both these sectors will collapse paving the way for the private sector to rescue it. Their greed for profit rather than genuine feeling for the impoverished in this country motivates their intervention. Safeguarding these services will ensure the vital life chances of the children of this country to become true citizens.

In effect, to achieve these welfare measures   the state needs to have organized structures and the important issue is who will be able to do this. The current parliamentary elections have presented to the electorate complex but extraordinary array of political forces in terms of their ambitions and promises. The United Peoples Front Alliance (UPFA) sole aim appears to be bringing back a corrupt, nepotistic and authoritarian regime in order to cover up their misdeeds as their leaders want to get away with serious allegations leveled against them. They do it in the name of protecting the country from the Tamils, arousing the fears and anxieties of the Sinhala Buddhist community. This has proved to be a successful electoral strategy over the years. Their uncompromising, anti-devolutionary, pseudo patriotic rhetoric   will only bring the country to serious ethnic disharmony rather than ethnic reconciliation.

The JVP at their public rallies and media debates have become good advocates for democracy, exposing the misdeeds of the Rajapaksa regime. But their history and behavior, which violated the most of rights encompassed in the democratic political project between 1987-89, goes against them. Even though they appear to have come out of their political wilderness, still the credibility of their statements is clouded. They should make public an apology for the mistakes they have committed particularly the murders of many left wing leaders, prominent activists and faceless comrades who supported the devolution of power to the Tamil community. That will make them stronger and show that they are capable of taking the country towards a modern civilized democratic nation where all ethnic communities will live as equal citizens. The JVP’s chances in this election will be good in terms of numbers but their ability to garner support to form a government is very remote. Their view about the devolution of power is politically archaic and anti democratic.    

In this election the electoral ability to defeat UPFA lies with the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) and they also provide the best hope for the continuation of the victory of January 8th. They will also offer a devolution package to the Tamil community. The current situation is not different from the situation the traditional and civil organizations had to deal with despite supporting the 13th Amendment of the UNP government and despite the armed opposition of the JVP. The civil organizations supporting the UNFGG election bid will be able to play an influential role in creating a democratic and socially just Sri Lanka. These civil organizations will remain as a catalyst for a future radical and left wing alternative if they consciously pursue the interests of the January electoral victory and beyond.

The Left needs to seriously think again and again how to restore the credibility of their politics and how to place it within the framework of democracy and socialism. To take it forward    we need to start again from the beginning. There will be a political space for such an endeavor at least for a short period at the beginning to reshape and launch our new endeavor – a Sri Lanka that belongs to all its people.