By Sumanasiri Liyanage –
Mahinda Rajapaksa has to face his erstwhile colleague in the cabinet and the General Secretary of the SLFP, former Minister of Health, Maithripala Sirisena at the forthcoming presidential election. Since many parties including the main opposition party, UNP, and civil society organizations have already decided to back Maithripala’s candidacy, he has now emerged as the main contender to the incumbent president.
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, one of the leading left parties has announced that it will boycott the presidential election although rumors are in the air that its central committee wanted Anura Kumara Dissanayake, de facto leader of the parliamentary opposition to contest. It is in this context marked by the absence of JVP in the presidential race in spite of a 200% increase in its vote at the Uva Provincial Council election held some time ago, that the breakaway group of the JVP, Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) decided to field a candidate representing the social left in Sri Lanka that at the moment is not numerically very strong.
Having been encouraged by the Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) experience in Greece, FSP tried hard to unite all left parties, groups and individuals to field a common candidate of the social left with a minimum but transitional left democratic program at the next presidential election. Well FSP does not claim that the left front it had initiated is Syriza in Sri Lanka; but it seems to me it is Syriza in the making. Whether it will mark a significant moment in Sri Lankan political history is yet to be seen. Nonetheless, this moment is and will become significant and relevant as FSP led social left in its manifesto have raised so many important questions that two principal contenders have refused so far to raise. Most importantly, when both fronts are ideologically dominated Sinhala-Buddhist (UPFA by Bodu Bala Sena and Maithri front by Jathika Hela Urumaya) elements, FSP left front appears to be the most effective secular political formation in the next election. Hence, my submission in this article is that the FSP led social left front poses the real opposition to the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime both in its program and in its practice.
Sri Lanka needs a strong social movement to counter three main trends in its recent history, namely, towards authoritarianism, towards economic policy framework that is biased towards the interests of the upper classes and layers of the society, and towards majoritarianism. Although these three trends emerged prior to MR coming to power, they have consolidated and strengthened under his regime due to multiple reasons.
What is relevant to my present submission is to look at the question of what social movements were actively engaged against the MR regime and its policies and actions. I recognize two counteracting forces in Sri Lankan society that questioned policies and actions of the MR regime. The first group, primarily urban, posed the issue of democracy, rule of law and good governance in their orthodox meanings. The most important group in this category was the Sri Lanka Lawyers’ Association that came forward strongly against the removal of the Chief justice, Dr Shirani Bandaranayaka. It organized many fora to discuss the matters that fell within its purview. Later, Citizen Forum also raised similar issues with strong political orientation. These views had been finally crystalized in the movement for Just Society led by Rev Maduluwave Sobhitha raising two main demands, (1) abolition of the executive presidential system and (2) reactivation of the 17th Amendment by repealing 18th Amendment to the Constitution. These protests by these groupings received so much attention by the media partly because of their elitist character.
The second opposition against the MR regime came from subaltern movements. There are four groups, (1) student movement; (2) trade unions and workers’ movements; (3) protests by peasants and rural masses; and (4) movements by numerically small nations and ethnic groups. Second and third movements were scattered and sporadic. The same can be applied to the fourth movement after militarily defeating the LTTE in 2009. Hence the consistent opposition to the government, especially against its policies on education, has been guided by the Inter-University Student Federation (IUSF). IUSF launched many a struggle in the recent past against cuts of student subsidies, educational reforms, commodification of education and so on. It is interesting and encouraging to note that IUSF was able to defeat government plans to reform education by encouraging private investments to enter into the field of education with the motive of profit. In the last year or so, it won almost all its struggles. The IUSF while struggling for free education also widened the democratic space that the elitist groupings failed to achieve. I remember very well when the march in Colombo city by the IUSF was banned by a court order at the request of the Police, Najith Indika, IUSF President decided to defy the order and continue the march. It proved to be a great victory. The following week, a district judge warned the police not to come forward with such requests. This, in my view, was a most significant victory for the democratic movement in Sri Lanka and all credit should go to IUSF.
The other subaltern movements that were capable of forcing the MR government to retreat include the anti-pension scheme by private sector employees in Free Trade Zone, peoples’ movement against water problem at Rathupaswala, protests by slum people against forcible eviction from their houses, peasants’ opposition to seed and water bills and micro opposition by villagers on their problems.
Maithripala Sirisena announcing his candidacy as a common opposition candidate informed us his program is limited to the abolition of the executive presidency and the reactivation of the 17th Amendment. In this sense his electoral program is based on the demands put forward by the elitist movement. There is no doubt that these are demands are important; but the program built on these demands are necessary but not sufficient to face or counter three major trends in Sri Lankans polity, society and economy. In contrast, FSP’s program is based on the struggles by various social elements in the past ten years taking issues raised by them in its entirety, in other words, confronting the MR candidacy by challenging it with a comprehensive program. Most significantly, the program includes swayan paalana by numerically small nations and protection of whatever the rights they have won, like 13th Amendment although they informed that they are not happy about it.
Last but by no means least I wish to point out something which is, in my view, of great importance. To signify the importance of the IUSF led protests against MR regime, FSP led left front have chosen to field as its candidate a former IUSF leader (there is a minimum age limit to contest in the presidential election – both the present leader of the IUSF and his immediate predecessor are under age), Comrade Duminda Nagamuwa who has led many a struggle on many a front. He is young and can lead many struggles in future.
*The writer is the co-coordinator of the Marx School.