Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is being challenged by Maithripala Sirisena, who was until recently one of his ministers, in the January 8 presidential elections. However, many Tamils and leftists see little difference between the two.
Sirisena is being supported by the opposition United National Party, and has promised to appoint UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe as prime minister. There are 16 other candidates.
Sirisena has promised to abolish the system of executive presidency, which concentrates power in the hands of the president, and replace it with a system where the parliament has more power.
This change has long been advocated by many human rights advocates, who think that reducing the arbitrary power of the president would improve the human rights situation. Some human rights advocates are supporting Sirisena for this reason.
However the Tamil Civil Society Forum sees no real difference between Rajapaksa and Sirisena.
In a statement issued on December 23, the TCSF said: “Regime change does not necessarily result in change in the lives of the Tamil people. Both main parties in the South … are deeply embedded in the Sinhala Buddhist [majority], chauvinist, anti-Tamil politics.
“They do not even have a minimally just position on Tamil issues. For example both parties are not even prepared to discuss a solution that goes beyond the confines of a unitary constitution.
“Both parties are also against international investigations [of war crimes] ... The opposition candidate also has repeatedly confirmed that his position is no different from that of the incumbent President with regard to both a political solution and accountability for crimes committed against the Tamils.”
The TCSF said changing the form of government from presidential to parliamentary would not solve the fundamental problem: “The Tamil people have suffered equally under Westminster style parliamentary form of Governments, prior to the enactment of the Second Republican Constitution. When the Sinhala Only Act was enacted in 1956 Sri Lanka had a parliamentary form of Government.”
The TCSF also said the attacks on the democratic rights of people in the predominantly Sinhalese south of the island of Sri Lanka are a by-product of the decades-long war against the Tamils. In 2009, the Sri Lankan state finally defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which fought for an independent state in the predominantly Tamil north-east.
It said: “The fact is the denial of democracy currently being experienced by the Sinhalese is a cumulative impact of the anti-Tamil politics of successive Sinhala Governments. The denial of democracy that they suffer now is result of them being bystanders [or] endorsing the anti-Tamil agenda of successive Governments.
“In our opinion the only sustainable path to democratization lies in the creation of a popular discourse that is created by taking a just stand on the National Question.”
The Tamil National Peoples Front has taken a similar view. TNPF leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam said that Sirisena is being backed by the Jathika Hela Urumaya, an extremist Buddhist Sinhalese organisation, as well as other groups hostile to Tamil rights.
Another extremist Sinhalese Buddhist group, Bodu Bala Sena, is supporting Rajapaksa.
However some leaders of the Tamil National Alliance, the main electoral party of the Tamils, are supporting Sirisena.
Left parties in the south of Sri Lanka are also divided. The NSSP (New Socialist Party) is supporting Sirisena, whereas the United Socialist Party is not.
NSSP leader Vickramabahu Karunaratne said the key struggles in Sri Lanka are for democracy and against the influence of multinational corporations, and that Sirisena should be given “critical support” for supporting these struggles.
Karunaratne said: “When presidential candidate Maithree [Sirisena] attacks the plunder carried out by [multinationals] with the connivance of the government, the NSSP gets the opportunity to put forward a consistent, clear alternative program to be carried out under the power of workers, peasants and fishers.”
On the other hand, USP presidential candidate Siritunga Jayasuriya said: “There is no difference between these two capitalist parties. Choosing among them is not a real choice for the people.”
Jayasuriya is campaigning against privatisation and for cutting military spending to fund better wages and services. He also supports self-determination for Tamils, saying: “The Tamil-speaking population has suffered immensely over the decades.
“I and my party stand firmly in support of the rights of the Tamil-speaking people and their ultimate right to self determination, including the right to secession if that’s what they desire, with the rights of all minorities safeguarded.”