Sri Lanka’s Marxist JVP In The Presidential Election – OpEd


According to the Sri Lankan Constitution, the presidential election should be held in September/October 2024. Some people believed, and some still believe the election will not occur. The skepticism is not without reason because President Ranil Wickramasinghe’s party, the United National Party, has a history of finding excuses for not conducting polls. President Jayewardene’s 1982 referendum canceled the parliamentary election. The present government of Wickremesinghe indefinitely deferred the local authority elections scheduled for 2023. 

When the government declared that the state coffer has no funds for local government elections, the pro-democracy civil society had no answers. The postponement of the local government elections also exposed the aragalaya. Proponents of the 2022 aragalaya argue that it was a democracy movement. If that was the case, aragalaya should have resurfaced when the local elections were postponed. In reality, the aragalaya was an economic movement that wanted a steady supply of essential commodities. 

Presidential Election 2024

In February 2024, President Wickremesinghe announced that the presidential election would be conducted within the “mandated period.” Media reports also suggested that he had instructed the cabinet and his party members to prepare for the presidential election. Therefore, at this point in time, we have to assume that the country will go for the presidential election at the end of this year.

It is against this backdrop that many think Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the National People’s Power (NPP) will win the election. This implies that Dissanayake will be Sri Lanka’s next president. The NPP is defined as a new political alliance headed by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). It could also be called a front of the JVP, which is known for using front organizations depending on the realities and needs. The Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya is a good example. Therefore, the tags NPP and JVP can be interchangeably used.  

The notion that Dissanayake will win the upcoming presidential election stems from three factors. One, some of the opinion polls conducted in Sri Lanka predict a Dissanayake victory. Two, The JVP/NPP meetings draw large crowds. Three, foreign ambassadors in Sri Lanka are flocking to meet Dissanayake at the party headquarters. 

Dissanayake’s recent high-profile meetings included conversations with European Union Ambassador Carmen Moreno, First Secretary of the Cuban Embassy Maribel Gonzales, Canadian High Commissioner Eric Walsh, and Japanese Ambassador Mizukoshi Hideaki. Ambassadors of several third-world countries also met Dissanayake recently at the JVP headquarters. These meetings and the enthusiasm shown suggest that international actors believe Dissanayake could win. These meetings and the notion that Dissanayake will win the election may be feeding into each other.  

Dissanayake in New Delhi

India has also demonstrated enthusiasm for accommodating Dissanayake. The JVP/NPP leader visited India in February 2024 on an invitation from India. It was suggested that Indian authorities invited and extended a cordial reception to Dissanayake because they believed in the opinion polls. That is entirely possible. 

However, there are also alternative explanations. For example, India has been slowly but steadily building its stronghold in Sri Lanka, especially since the 2022 economic crisis. In other words, India is currently giving China a run for its money. The Narendra Modi government has shown a keen interest in building a land bridge to Sri Lanka. During his recent visit to New Delhi, Wickremesinghe signed several agreements with the Indian government to propel “connectivity” between the two countries. One of the agreements was about building a land bridge (or a tunnel). The parties agreed to immediately undertake the feasibility study for such a land bridge project. 

A land bridge between India and Sri Lanka would firmly and permanently bring Sri Lanka under India’s influence. Therefore, one could expect severe opposition to such a project from the South. One of the main sources of opposition could be the JVP. India would not have forgotten the JVP’s staunch anti-India position during the late 1980s. The JVP’s second insurgency was built on an anti-India position. Therefore, the current accommodation of Dissanayake could be a preemptive move to soften the JVP. The Indian gesture worked as on his return, Dissanayake declared that India is important. The point here is that the enthusiasm shown by foreign ambassadors to meet Dissanayake could be deceptive and misleading.                 


Having said that, I believe that it is too early to predict a Dissanayake presidency, and the task will not be easy for him. He has three specific challenges. 

One, the current opinion polls could be unreliable. They use small samples that do not represent the national structures. I also believe that these polls are conducted mainly among Sinhala people. For many Southern institutions, minorities are invisible. Some of them unconsciously act as if minorities do not exist. But in the real election, minorities vote. Given the recent political history, many people may be hesitant to admit that they will vote for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) or even Wickremesinghe. If fielded, the SLPP candidate could garner more votes than numbers suggested by the opinion polls. Hidden nationalists are difficult to survey. Moreover, in some cases, looking at the numbers alone is inadequate. One needs to look at the sentiments and loyalties of those conducting the interviews.  

Two, Dissanayake has an economic policy problem. The JVP was founded on Marxist and socialist ideals. However, it seems the party is transforming. We don’t hear the traditional virulent anti-capitalist rhetoric anymore. In India, he looked more capitalist than the right-wing industrialists. Officially, the JVP is still a socialist political entity. Unless the Sri Lankan political culture has turned upside down with the aragalaya, a socialist party cannot win the presidency. Sri Lanka has had a bitter experience with socialist experiments. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s socialist policies brought the country to its knees. Even Gotabaya Rajapaksa was slowly moving the country towards a centralized and state-controlled economic system. He banned the importation of various goods and ordered farmers to use certain types of fertilizers. His policies culminated in a catastrophe.  

Therefore, it is difficult to believe that most Sri Lankans would vote for a socialist government. Some minority groups, for example, the Muslim community, which benefited immensely from Jayewardene’s open market policies, would not vote for socialist candidates. Dissanayake could learn a lesson or two from President Kumaratunga. Kumaratunga won parliamentary and presidential elections in 1994 only after officially renouncing socialism. She adopted what she called “capitalism with a human face.” Therefore, Dissanayake would have a chance of winning the presidential election if he found an excuse to abandon his party’s socialist policies.    

Three, Dissanayake has a minority problem.  Although founded on Marxist principles, for the most part, the JVP operated as a Sinhala ethno-nationalist party. Most Tamils would not hesitate to call it an inavatha katchi (racist party). The JVP’s anti-Tamil politics were notable. That is why Bruce Matthews, in an essay titled “Sinhala Cultural and Buddhist Patriotic Organizations in Contemporary Sri Lanka,” described JVP as “anarchic, nihilistic, and anti-Tamil.” 

The party branded the Tamils as collaborators of Indian expansionism in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. The JVP’s Memorandum of Understanding with the ruling People’s Alliance, signed in September 2001, included a cause against devolution of power to the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Clause 2 of the MoU stipulated that the government should not introduce any proposal for devolution of power within one year. The JVP opposed the peace negotiations, the Ceasefire Agreement signed in February 2002, and the merger of Northern and Eastern Provinces. The JVP spearheaded the demerger movement and eventually succeeded as the Sri Lankan courts ruled that the decision to merge the provinces was illegal. The Tamils have not forgotten the JVP’s recent anti-Tamil politics. Therefore, I presume that most Tamil would not vote for a JVP candidate in the presidential election. 

Now, the question is, can Dissanayake win the presidential election without minority and anti-socialist votes?        

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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