With the spotlight focused on shifting allegiances in the two main coalitions for the general election, the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) and the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the impact of the ‘third force’, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has gone unnoticed.
Since the decline of the Old Left in the aftermath of their crushing defeat at the 1977 general election, the JVP has justifiably or not claimed the mantle of being the ‘third force’ in Sri Lankan politics. It re-entered mainstream politics in the early nineties after being crushed during the 1989 insurrection.
However, despite its May Day parades conducted with military precision, the crowds it attracts to its public meetings and the lack of corruption in its ranks, it has never been able to translate its claims of being a ‘third force’ into becoming a genuine political power with a stable vote base.
With the proportional representation system allowing smaller parties a greater say in the legislature, it did gradually increase its share of seats in Parliament from a single seat in 1994 to 10 seats in 2000 which grew to 16 seats in 2001. In 2001, its share of the national vote was nine percent.
In 2004, the JVP performed an electoral sleight of hand. It contested in alliance with the UPFA but nominated only one or two candidates in each district list. So, all its preferences accrued to these candidates. The result: the 2004 parliament had 39 Members of Parliament representing the JVP.
By 2010, when the UPFA recorded an overwhelming win soon after the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was concluded, support for the JVP slipped again: contesting as the Democratic National Alliance, it won only seven seats with just over five percent of the vote.
The JVP also went through a period of internal dissent. First to part ways was Wimal Weerawansa who left the party, forming the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna in 2008 and hitching his fortune to that of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, it doesn’t have a substantial following.
Recently, there was more tumult: In 2012, Kumar Gunaratnam broke away from the JVP to form the Frontline Socialist Party and just last April, Somawansa Amerasinghe, who led the party for twenty years and revived it from the ashes of the 1989 debacle quit, citing differences of opinion.
These hiccups notwithstanding, the JVP support base has grown in recent months. Notable factors in this surge are the leadership style of Anura Kumara Dissanayake and the general political turmoil that has afflicted the two major parties, the UNP and the SLFP, and the alliances they are part of.
The JVP has also played its cards rather shrewdly. In the run up to the presidential election in January, it criticized Rajapaksa harshly and categorically called for his ouster, but refrained from getting on stage with those parties campaigning with the ‘swan’ symbol of candidate Maithripala Sirisena.
Dissanayake used the idiom of a grocery store to convey the messages to the masses: he said goods in ‘Rajapaksa stores’ were defective but that they couldn’t guarantee the quality of goods in ‘Sirisena stores’. Subsequent events – and the chaos in the past six months – have proven the JVP correct.
Today, the JVP finds itself in an advantageous position. After ten years of Rajapaksa’s iron-fisted rule, the UPFA finds itself discredited, its nomination lists crammed with names that the people are tired of, most of those individuals mired in controversies involving corruption and abuse of power.
The UNFGG hasn’t done itself any favors either in the six months it has been in office. The scandal involving the Central Bank Governor typifies what a UNP led government would be like, if left to its own devices. The new dispensation has overseen a marked slowing of development activities too.
The hangers-on of the two coalitions are a motely crowd. Left leaning parties with little or no support base are hoping the Rajapaksa magic will ensure they are re-elected to Parliament. Paradoxically, the UNFGG is a collection of parties that have but one thing in common – their animosity to Rajapaksa.
In the midst all this, the JVP is seen by a growing number as being worthy of their vote. Some will vote for the red shirts to register their protest against the two major parties. Others feel the JVP needs to have greater numbers in Parliament, if only to counter the excesses of the UNP and the SLFP.
There will always be a generation of voters who lived through ’71 and ’89 who will fear the JVP’s history of violence. But, in an election that is poised to become a photo finish, the JVP wouldn’t be fantasizing if it believes it can win enough seats in the next Parliament and hold the balance of power.