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JVP, SLFP and ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’

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In the run-up to the March 2006 elections the JVP signalled to its UPFA allies that it would be running for seats under its own steam. This signalled, firstly, the failure of the former UPFA allies to divide the spoils in a pre-election agreement, secondly, the JVP’s willingness to flex its muscles as a warning to the future intent of the SLFP leadership on a host of issues - including the peace process - and thirdly, its intention to capture more local councils, not simply a greater share of the overall seats.

The last was part of a long-term strategy to secure council control in order to effect the extension of the kind of flagship local governance that had informed the JVP’s experiment with Tissamaharama Pradeshiya Sabha, the only local authority that the JVP has controlled which it won in the 2002 local elections.

The reason Tissamaharama is significant is twofold. Firstly, the JVP’s control of Tissamaharama has posed a series of much needed questions on facets of local government which have, for the most part to date, been discussed amongst local government officials, policy makers, ministers for local government, the relevant bureaucrats, academics and NGO, INGO and IGO personnel who have specialist interest in this field.

The JVP’s ability to introduce new subject areas (or to bypass restrictions on these) into local government, to attempt to protect existing subject areas, to develop local services, to improve access to Pradeshiya Sabha members, to abolish some forms of existing inequitable local taxation and to rigorously and systematically pursue the collection of others has produced notable results. Tissamaharama PS has also provided a platform for the JVP to reinforce its image as a party of clean (corruption and violence free) and responsive politics which has forms of participatory local development as a key goal.

That this occurs in an environment of widespread decay and deterioration in local government effectivity is also a testament to the JVP’s continuing ability to assume the moral high ground in a context of governmental and mainstream party failure. Since JR Jayawardene’s UNP rule of the late 1970s and 1980s, local government has been increasingly vampirised by the tendrils of control over local government, which have emerging from political parties and the government at the centre. Much of the framework for this centralising predatory pattern was ironically first implemented under the guise of decentralisation.

Sri Lanka’s over-centralised state has also leeched away local authorities’ capacities in terms of the provision of and revenue from, for example, housing, water, infrastructural development, welfare services, education, guest houses etc. The state has effectively removed many of these spheres of activity from local government jurisdiction. These failures are extensively catalogued by state-sponsored research into local government – for example the ‘Commission of Inquiry into Local Government Reform’ published in 1999.

What Sri Lanka now has is a highly debilitated level of local government that has become the centre-dependent, patron-client based, playing ground for the mainstream political parties who use local councils as power bases for securing political ties from the centre to the regions and as training grounds for tomorrow’s centre-level political cadres.

In such a context of failure, the JVP obviously sought to exploit its successes at the local level in the recent local election and used Tissamaharama as a central motif in its media campaign strategy. As a result, many commentators, with some justification, thought it entirely possible that the JVP could potentially capitalise on its local government efforts.

However, what the local government election results have demonstrated is the JVP’s failure to have extended its reach into new local power bases. Although the JVP extended its overall number of seats, it failed to secure control of any more councils, merely retaining Tissamaharama PS. How did the JVP fail to capitalise on a key area of failure on the part of the two mainstream parties?

The answer is to be found in the contextual difficulties in Sri Lanka’s political culture which have acted as obstacles to the party’s strategy. Firstly, it is clear that the JVP have been to some extent hoist by the petard of the very local government retrogression that they sought to overcome. The deterioration of local government itself has led to the decline in the political relevance of local government at many levels of both state and society, amongst the media and the electorate.

These is also a subsequent paucity in the discourse of ‘local government’ in relation to its purpose, functions, targets, effectivity etc. This has reinforced, in a circular manner, what has long been noted as a core problem in the Sri Lankan polity; the centre-oriented and over-centralising thrust of the country’s political culture and institutions to the extent that local government institutions have frequently become obsolete, bypassed and/or neglected in the eyes of many local citizens who turn to their MPs or to other central institutions for solutions to their problems. It is not just that “there (is) an abiding concern for centralization among Sri Lanka’s political elites and parties” as one commentator, S Sirivardana, has astutely noted, but that this centre-oriented disposition has also become ingrained, out of necessity, in the political culture at wider social levels.

This facet of Sri Lanka’s political culture also evidently continues to strengthen the hand of the politically dominant party. Voters and local party cadres (even of the opposition in cross-party movement) will also be keen to leap on to the winning bandwagon; a factor that has lead to the widely accepted truism that the sooner a party holds a local government election on the back of prior electoral victory the greater the margin of victory, for national-level election pledges still ring loudly and the machinery of political patronage is still well-greased.

In that sense, the UPFA’s victory, like the UNF’s local election landslide in 2002, was an almost inevitable outcome of Sri Lanka’s continuing failure to challenge the centralisation embedded in the political system. In other words, local election outcomes were always deeply entrenched in the politics of the centre rather than in any governmental dynamics at a local level. Whilst it is impossible to completely separate these spheres of the national and the local, it is a matter of degree and Sri Lanka remains an example that veers in extreme fashion towards the centre-oriented end of the spectrum.

The JVP’s failure to reap the rewards of its more effective local government on a wider scale can thus be interpreted as a result of the JVP championing a cause which is neither celebrated or deemed relevant beyond the Tissamaharama flagship for a large section of the electorate. It therefore remains difficult for the JVP to translate their local government reputation to a wider level and thus to have brought about an extended capture of councils.

This is, however, certainly not to suggest the JVP is a champion of devolved or decentralised local power. On the contrary, it is clear that they are in favour of a centralised system. But local government issues have been a testament to their grass roots base and a tactic en route to the capture of the centre. On the way, they also demonstrate the relative failure of local governance in Sri Lanka and their characteristic for assuming the moral high ground in political strategies.

Thus, the outcome of last week’s local government election can be seen as a partial failure for the JVP’s short-term objectives to capture more potential local government flagships. However this cannot be extended to an interpretation that the local polls represented a “rout” of the JVP as has been articulated in some quarters. Nor can it be said that this has radically altered the dynamics of the peace process by inevitably strengthening the hand of the President vis-à-vis his more Sinhala nationalist allies for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it is clear from the statistics that the JVP have extended their overall number of seats even if capture of the Chair and Mayoral positions is decisive for control at the local level and this was lacking. The JVP themselves have also argued that the UPFA victory would have been even more decisive had the SLFP and the JVP worked together and the outcome of the election does demonstrate the SLFP’s and the JVP’s continuing mutual dependence upon one another rather than simply the ascendancy of Rajapakse.

The proof will really only be telling in relation to the next parliamentary elections but projected statistical forecasts at a national level indicate that it may be too early for the SLFP to risk casting off the JVP despite the fact that there are rumours that Rajapakse may declare a snap parliamentary poll to capitalise on the aforementioned momentum of success.

Secondly, both the JVP’s role in the construction of the Mahinda Chintanaya edifice, their refusal to dissociate themselves from Mahinda Chintanaya in the local elections campaign (in fact their continued endorsement of Mahinda Chintanaya was apparent) and the fact that Mahinda Rajapakse has not dissociated himself from this manifesto indicate that this victory could also be partly read as a deriving from a JVP-led ideological construct.

Furthermore, there is an ideological dynamic that has served to push the political spectrum in a distinctly Sinhala nationalist direction in the context of a crucial moment for the peace process.

It therefore remains to be seen whether Rajapakse has successfully engineered the cutting of the Gordian Knot that tied the SLFP and the JVP together. Certainly there are certain benefits the SLFP will gain from a local election victory – it can be argued that this may revitalise the SLFP’s hitherto flagging party machinery and provide them with local power bases. However, in the light of the UNP’s swift demise since 2002 one wonders how significant this is?

The above rationale can be seen as dismissive of local government politics but it is clear that unless there is a radical shift in relations between the local and the centre, the privileging of the centre will not abate. It is also, unfortunately, this privileging of the centre that has been a major ingredient in the reproduction of the ethnic conflict and Sinhala majoritarian dynamics. As a result a major shift in the dynamics of the peace process is not in sight either - the ideological atmosphere in which politics takes place is surely the ultimate outcome that must be judged rather than merely counting which councils, chairs and members fell to which party.

Dave Rampton is a visiting lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. The JVP and southern politics are the focus of his doctoral research.

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