Monday, April 19, 2010

End of the road for Sri Lanka's left?

President Mahinda Rajapakse's successes in the past year were capped with his parliamentary victory. It might also herald the end of the Marxist JVP, which had twice tried to overthrow the government by force.The Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (People's Liberation Front, or JVP), which led two unsuccessful attempts at violently overthrowing the elected governments of the day, has been swept out of its southern strongholds and is now reduced to a few pockets outside the traditional areas.This despite the JVP having positioned itself since the 1980s as an ultra-nationalist party, vehemently opposed to the Tamil minority's attempts to carve out a separate state, as well as to foreign intervention in Sri Lanka's internal affairs.

In less than a year, Rajapakse scored three convincing victories: one on the war front and two on the political front. Last May, his resolute leadership led to the defeat of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), considered by some Western pundits as militarily undefeatable.In January, he decisively won the presidential election, held well before schedule. He has now topped that with the parliamentary victory.The stunning but not unexpected victory of Rajapakse's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has belied the rationale of the architect of the 1978 constitution, which introduced proportional representation in parliamentary elections and abandoned the previous first-past-the-post election system practised since before independence in 1948.

That architect, the late Junius Richard Jayewardene, argued that proportional representation would prevent a single party dominating parliament by allowing smaller parties to enter the legislature. It would thus create a strong opposition.Having won an unprecedented five-sixths majority at the 1977 election, Jayewardene sought to deny to others the same dominance he enjoyed for over a decade.Whatever his reasoning, the recent election has not only proved Jayawardene to have been a false prophet, but has reduced the once-powerful JVP to cinders.

When the JVP won 39 seats at the 2004 election, it touted itself as the third force and soon-to-be alternative government. It has slumped now to half-a-dozen seats. The final number (which at most will be one extra seat) will be determined after a recount in two districts tomorrow. The actual figure for the JVP is even lower, as two of the new seats were won by former army commander General Sarath Fonseka and former cricket World Cup-winning captain Arjuna Ranatunge, who are not of the JVP but contested along with the JVP under the banner of the Democratic National Alliance.

The Marxist JVP's place in the history of Sri Lankan politics is undeniable. Well over a decade before the Tamil Tigers launched its armed campaign for a separate Tamil state, the JVP had tried to topple the government.In April 1971, it began an armed insurrection against a government less than a year in office and brought in two of the oldest Marxist parties in the country -- the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Equal Society Party-LSSP) and the pro-Moscow Communist Party.Though the two traditional Left parties -- the LSSP dating back to1935 and the Communist Party (CP) to the 1940s -- originally had revolutionary agendas, they came to realise they could never achieve power on their own.So they coalesced with centrist parties such as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which Rajapakse belongs to, in order to achieve power and influence policy.

IF this month's parliamentary election further solidified Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse's hold on power, it also decimated his erstwhile ally and the only Marxist party of any consequence left in the country.
The LSSP in the early 1960s and again from 1970 with the pro-Moscow Communists held key ministerial positions in SLFP governments until they were edged out six years later.

Though espousing socialist causes and policies, the LSSP and CP were largely urban working class movements led by English-speaking, often foreign educated middle-class politicians whose early revolutionary ideas had been abandoned on the road to power-sharing.When Sri Lanka was invited to join Asean as founding member in 1967, Singapore reportedly objected vigorously, saying there were "communists" in the Sri Lanka government, though there were none in sight at the time. Such was the fear Sri Lanka's Left generated among neighbours.The rise of the JVP and its insurrection of 1971 was a revolt against the centrist, Colombo-centric politics of the day. It was also an indictment of the traditional Left, which had aligned itself with Colombo's middle-class political leadership.

Whereas the traditional Left had organised urban workers, the JVP's base was rural youth, some of them university graduates, denied access to employment by lacking proficiency in the English language.The revolt was crushed, but the JVP rose from the ashes in the latter part of the 1980s in new Sinhala garb, unleashing violence against the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord that had brought Indian troops to the country's north to end the Tamil separatist struggle.Anarchy reigned as the JVP went on a killing spree, almost paralysing state activity. Once again the JVP was crushed with huge loss of life, some estimates going as high as 60,000 deaths.Thereafter, the JVP re-entered mainstream politics and in 2004 won the highest number of seats ever, having built strong bases in the deep south. But that was in cahoots with the SLFP.

Now Rajapakse, also from the rural south, has wiped the area clean of the JVP. In his four years Rajapakse, earlier dependent on the JVP for parliamentary support, deftly engineered a split in the JVP and has now delivered what appears to be the coup de grace to JVP political ambitions.By NEVILLE SILVA

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