Sri Lankan elections: ‘Butcher of the Tamils’ Rajapaksa defeated

Demonstration against the Sri Lankan government's attacks on the Tamils 11 April 2009, photo Paul Mattsson

Demonstration against the Sri Lankan government’s attacks on the Tamils 11 April 2009, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

TU Senan, CWI

In the presidential election held on 8 January in Sri Lanka the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa, suffered a fatal blow. The opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, won with 51.3% against Rajapaksa’s 47.6%.

Mahinda has become one of the most unpopular presidents in Sri Lanka’s history, responsible for establishing dictatorial power in the hands of his very own Rajapaksa dynasty. They had become notoriously mired in corruption.

He is known as the destroyer of freedom of speech and democratic rights. After the way he ended the civil war in 2009 with the massacre of tens of thousands of Tamil people, he will be remembered as the butcher of the Tamils.

Competing influences

Since Rajapaksa came to power in 2005, Chinese investment and infrastructure development has played a key role in maintaining the much-required stability which helped him survive the last ten years.

Initially, the IMF did help to rescue the then deteriorating economy with a loan of $2.7 billion when it was hit by crisis. However Western imperialism’s support has diminished to the extent that the US gave a clear indication that they would like to see a ‘regime change’ and the cessation of Chinese influence.

This election has been seen as a contest between competing interests in the region – those of China, India and Western capitalist powers.

Although the economy has been growing at 7% – one of the fastest growing economies in the world – the masses had no feeling that the economy was going forward. The popular support that Mahinda enjoyed during the immediate post- war period among the Sinhala majority had begun to decline rapidly. They were all too aware of the rising prices, attacks on education and health etc.

A general understanding has developed among the masses that the Chinese investment was only strengthening the president’s family and their wealth. Even a section of the capitalist class in Sri Lanka felt let down that they were excluded from any benefits of the investment and development.


Under his heavy fist of repression, the real face of the opposition was hidden, but it was revealed as soon as the election was called. A rift opened up within his own ranks and his long-time ally and the general secretary of the SLFP, his own party, came forward as the opposition candidate.

Not only the discriminated-against Tamils and Muslims would vote against Mahinda, but a new phenomenon developed in the south with many layers of the middle class moving against him.

He abused his control of the state machinery to make propaganda for himself. He prevented journalists and activists from travelling to Sri Lanka to observe and participate in the election.

Death threats were issued against human rights activists and the military was used to intimidate voters. Despite all of this, there was a high turn-out (around 75%) and many millions voted to kick Rajapaksa out.

‘Get Mahinda out!’ was the driving motivation – not a positive sentiment for Maithri. He maintained that he would follow Rajapaksa on security and protect the country and the Mahinda family from the war crimes investigation. He did however pledge to remove the executive presidency and return to a British-style democracy. He promised to discontinue some of the Chinese projects and investigate corruption.

Even Mahinda acknowledged that the masses merely faced a choice of two evils – or two devils. He urged a vote for himself, the ‘known devil’!

Socialist challenge

USP member Siritunga ‘Siri’ Jayasuriya stood as an opposition candidate and was able to call meetings with up to 1,000 participating. He was the only candidate to stand for the rights of the Tamils to self-determination, withdrawal of troops from the north and east and no to privatisation.

In his campaign Siri exposed the inability of either of the two main camps – wedded to capitalism – to achieve what is needed for the majority of working and oppressed people. He also explained that, while executive powers must be abolished, returning to a British parliamentary system is not a solution. He promoted the demand for a revolutionary constituent assembly.

Siri received 8,840 votes – decent in the polarised and difficult situation. Winning the trust of the masses to vote for left and socialist candidates in Sri Lanka is a hard task because of the country’s history of betrayals.

Now that the executive power is transferred to Maithri, the masses will expect change. It is very difficult to see how much he can change as long as the Mahinda family still maintains a grip on power.

A period of political uncertainty has opened up. It is more vital than ever to build the organisational strength of the masses to take the demands of the USP forward.