Sri Lanka’s twisted politics

Manny Thain

Following the fall of Mahinda Rajapaksa, an extraordinary situation has emerged. The United National Party (UNP) leads the government although it does not have a majority in parliament. This is because a number of Rajapaksa-appointed ministers resigned and UNP MPs took their places. UNP leader, Ranil Wickramasinghe was appointed prime minister. Meanwhile, newly elected president, Maithripala Sirisena, does not have the full support of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – also the party of Rajapaksa – and so has to rely on UNP support. Such is the tug-of-war, or game of Twister, being played out.

A significant section in the parliament still backs the old, blood-soaked regime. In fact, 113 MPs signed a petition in support of Rajapaksa when he was summoned by the bribery commission looking into corruption under his rule. A number of ministers and MPs also face corruption charges. It would be naive, therefore, to think that a parliament dominated by such cronies and collaborators of the past, criminal regime would come out with any meaningful reforms to make the system more democratic.

The formation at the end of March of a ‘national government’ of the UNP and SLFP has also helped to expose the fact that there are no fundamental policy differences between these parties. Yet each of them is jostling for control of parliament and, in the process, the leaders are struggling to keep control of their own parties.

To accommodate possible desertion by SLFP MPs, the national government has created new ministerial positions. Despite being charged with corruption, Rajapaksa family members still retain significant support and are working hard to make their comeback. Mahinda Rajapaksa has organised many public events and activities, and is whipping up Sinhala chauvinist propaganda. His family seems to be sensing the weakness in the opposition and is going on the offensive.

The Rajapaksas’ involvement in the ‘floating armoury’ corruption scandal – relating to the illegal arms shipment stored offshore – and many other accusations have not damaged significantly their nationalist and chauvinist support base. Many government ministers and president Sirisena realise that the Rajapaksas could sink the whole ship it they decided to reveal all they know about the wheeling and dealing under Mahinda’s rule. This is also behind the intense manoeuvres and under-the-table deals that are taking place.

Now that the new 19th amendment to the constitution has been agreed, a wave of dirty deals is underway in preparation for the upcoming parliamentary elections. (The 19th amendment – passed on 28 April by 215 votes to only one against – supposedly limits the draconian powers of the president and brings back more democratic rights. However, the president remains the head of state and commander in chief, and appoints the cabinet.)


Geopolitical reality

Soon after becoming foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera flew from India to Europe to the US, busily signing new deals and contracts. Samaraweera declared that he understood the ‘South Asian geopolitical reality’, meaning that Sri Lanka will remain a satellite state of India and will comply fully with its ambitions in the region. He seems to have obtained this wisdom after feeling the strong hand of the Indian authorities during the presidential election. The Sri Lankan government has always lived in fear of a possible Indian intervention.

Indian intelligence agencies are reported to have played a significant role in transferring power from Rajapaksa to Sirisena, and in defeating an alleged coup by the Rajapaksa family. Former defence secretary, Gotobaya Rajapaksa, admitted in an interview that they wanted to implement a curfew on the morning the election results were announced. He also admitted to forming a three-person team with the Indian government to oversee the final phase of the war in 2009 – in reality, to finalise the slaughter of Tamils.

And, at the recent East Asia Forum – an influential policy platform close to Australian, Indian and western power interests – the Indian government warned that close ties between Sri Lanka and China would have “significant consequences for regional security”, and suggested it would interfere by force if its interests were challenged.

Samaraweera’s stated desire is to strengthen relations with the governments of the US, India and the European Union. However, it has not been possible to sideline Chinese interests completely. Rajapaksa signed a series of deals with the Chinese government which tied in the Sri Lankan economy for a long time. Attempts to reverse the Colombo port city deal, for example, faced determined opposition from China which has forced the Sri Lankan government to postpone any decision until after the elections.

Nonetheless, the UNP has indicated that it aims to bring in US and European capital into a number of projects. And it is clear that the UNP will carry out measures demanded by the IMF and World Bank. These include the privatisation of key parts of the public sector – essential services relied on by most people. The popular demands of 100-day programme have been used to try to break support away from the Rajapaksa family – and for that reason were also tolerated by international agencies and big business. However, this is unlikely to last after the general election.

If all the demands of the 100-day programme were delivered and maintained it would require major spending on public services, state investment in education, health, housing, jobs, etc. Money for this cannot come from the 7% growth in the economy alone, even if that could be sustained. Economic growth will also be impacted once debt payments to China and the IMF start. The projected declines in China and India’s economies will also impact on the Sri Lankan economy.

The fact of the matter is that the UNP has no plans to implement such a programme. A day after his appointment as governor of the central bank, Arjuna Mahendran said that the “focus should be shifted to private investment… and away from government spending”. He added: “The government this year will practice very strong austerity [cut-backs].”

This sheds a different light on the interim UNP budget, dubbed by some a ‘Robin Hood budget’. It is nothing of the sort. The UNP has no intention of taking from the rich to feed the poor. Its sole motive was to hoodwink the people in order to form the next government. Nor is finance minister, Ravi Karunanayake a Robin Hood. He backed an extension of the retirement age and similar neoliberal measures in the past. He is awaiting trial on allegations that he colluded with hedge funds to push through illegal transactions in the central bank. Arjuna Mahendran also stands accused of stealing $500 million from the central bank.


Political manoeuvring

This is a foretaste of a UNP government. However, forming one is not going to be straightforward. The UNP is hoping that the Rajapaksa family will stand independently from the SLFP, thus splitting its vote. But Mahinda Rajapaksa has indicated he wants to stand again for the SLFP. Some members of his family have already been selected for the party, and his son is expected to stand in their home town of Hambantota. If Mahinda’s backers get significant support in the election it would increase tensions in parliament and could pave the way for his return.

The UNP is trying to play on this fear to win the backing of the minority parties. This is also proving to be more complicated than in the past. Both the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Muslim Congress, with strongholds in the north and east respectively, are facing crisis. The main parties in the TNA had maintained their loyalty to their class and so supported the UNP. However, a new situation has begun to emerge in the post-war north where a majority of Tamils are rejecting those seeking to form an alliance with the UNP or SLFP, which are correctly seen as enemies. Wickramasinghe has reinforced this view with statements backing the continued military occupation of the north, and his refusal to allow war crimes investigations.

TNA leaders are coming under severe pressure because they have not delivered on any of their election policies. Instead, some of them have attacked protesters in the diaspora, and have come out openly in support of Indian and European governments. The TNA not only fully supports the 19th amendment, it was involved in drafting it.

TNA leaders have expressed their desire to comply with a Sirisena/Wickramasinghe government. They could even take some ministerial positions after the elections. This would further sharpen the divisions emerging inside the TNA. A small party, the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), formed by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam who left the TNA in 2010, is said to be growing and is expected to win its first MP. Similarly, the Muslim Congress leader’s authority in the communities in the east is being challenged.

The lack of an alternative mass party that can articulate the fight for the working people, peasants, poor and oppressed sections is being strongly felt throughout the country. There is a huge political vacuum. In these circumstances, Tamil Solidarity continues to raise the importance of creating a wider, mass campaigning organisation of the workers and youth. This could put forward a programme in the interests of the vast majority of people in Sri Lanka, regardless of their ethnic/religious background.