This year’s protests have revitalized the country’s socialists. But can they capitalize on that momentum electorally?
The mass protests in Sri Lanka that led to the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the appointment of a new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, in July have now stalled. As Wickremesinghe cracks down on dissent, and demonstrators figure out where to go from here, many critics and experts have overlooked the role the country’s left has played in the protest movement.
Leftist parties are not the main players in the country’s aragalaya, or struggle, but they have shaped the movement considerably. Members of student and youth unions linked to leftist parties set up camp at Gota Go Gama, the now-disbanded site in Colombo that became the center of the movement after it was established in April. In the months that followed, leftist professional organizations, trade unions, and individuals also joined in, bringing their ideas and resources with them to the site’s complex political ecosystem.
Though they have yelled out chants with socialist agendas—defending universal health care and free education, and advocating for wealth redistribution, environmental conservation, and anti-corruption measures—many of these people haven’t outright identified as members of the left. When they identified that way in the past, few Sri Lankans listened or paid attention to them, said Kaushalya Ariyarathne, an academic and a member of the leftist National People’s Power party alliance. But when they introduced these positions in a nonpartisan context, other people joined in their chants.
“We did not join as [the Frontline Socialist Party] because the people there did not like the state, Parliament, or political parties,” party spokesperson Pubudu Jayagoda said. “We did not reveal our name but decided to contribute.”
Due to the left’s complex history in the island, most Sri Lankans are opposed to leftist groups and politicians. (Currently, only three leftist politicians are in Parliament, all belonging to the National People’s Power.) This only worsened with this year’s intertwined economic and political crises, when the public started to condemn all political parties, including leftist ones.
The left’s position in the country’s aragalaya reveals a strange tension. Over the past six months, the public has adopted the left’s concerns, demands, and language, but Sri Lankans are still not ready to see the left as a political alternative to the current ruling parties and elect more leftist politicians into government.
The turbulent history of Sri Lanka’s left continues to color the public’s perception of leftist parties. In its early days, it wielded considerable influence. The country’s first leftist political party, founded in 1935, was the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party. That party became a major political force in the country’s independence movement, which succeeded in 1948.
The Lanka Sama Samaja Party joined with the Communist Party in leading the 1953 hartal, or general strike, successfully opposing the government’s proposal to end a rice subsidy that many Sri Lankans relied on.
Yet it was not until 1970 that the parties’ success in Parliament peaked. At that year’s general election, they joined a broader coalition and launched several socialist policies, including ones that supported the local production of rice and land reform. Ultimately, these policies could not be fully implemented due to the dynamics of the coalition government. “The workers, peasants and poor of the country had a lot of hopes, but none of their promises were borne out,” said Siritunga Jayasuriya, a trade unionist who leads the United Socialist Party.
Soon, the situation became violent. A faction of the Maoist Communist Party broke out to form the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which led to an armed revolt in 1971 against the government roused by rural poverty and unemployment that was crushed by the state.
Tensions continued after J.R. Jayewardene became president in 1978, when Sri Lanka initiated a market-driven economy. In the 1980 general strike, when several leftist parties and trade union leaders advocated for a pay increase, the state used force to crush the country’s trade union movement. It has never fully recovered.
Jayewardene banned the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in the aftermath of the anti-Tamil Black July riots in 1983, falsely blaming them for the deadly pogroms. From 1987 to 1989, the party launched a second insurrection in response to the government introducing a provincial council system and the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. The state responded with a counterinsurrection, which brought murder, enforced disappearances, and torture. Many of the party’s leaders, including Rohana Wijeweera and Upatissa Gamanayake, were assassinated.
The government’s death squads and torture camps of this beeshanaya, or period of terror, still haunt the country today. Despite the evolution of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna over the years, the insurrections have continued to taint Sri Lankans’ perceptions of the party.
Leftist ideas quickly began contributing to the movement and gave it more shape.
In 1994, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna regrouped and reentered Parliament. The party’s ideological core deteriorated due to its members’ desire for it to become a stakeholder in mainstream politics, which drove it to form alliances with parties and individuals on the right and center-right. Those have included then-President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s pro-capitalist regime from 2001 to 2003, the Sinhalese nationalist Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid for the presidency in 2005, and former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka’s presidential campaign in 2010.
Since then, the left has continued to fragment. In 2012, some members exited the party to form the Frontline Socialist Party, focused on building a social movement and nurturing progressive politics. In 2018, the leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna formed the National People’s Power, an electoral coalition, and two years later, the party won three out of 225 seats in Parliament. Rather than focusing on class, as previous leftist parties did, this front primarily cares about anti-corruption and strengthening public services.
The left was still fragmented by the time the protests exploded across the country earlier this year. The Frontline Socialist Party’s Jayagoda noted that at the start of the protests, the main theme had been “Go Home Gota”—or getting Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign. It didn’t have another direction or vision for the future. But leftist ideas quickly began contributing to the movement and gave it more shape. This was evident in the protest boards and banners at Gota Go Gama. For instance, banners were frequently adorned with the slogan “Power to the People Beyond Parliament,” which stemmed from the Frontline Socialist Party.
That party has also helped set up other protest camps around the country, including in the cities of Badulla, Galle, and Kandy. These sites have worked to mobilize citizens, and the party has hosted meetings and provided resources to help develop and sustain the movement.
Leftist parties’ presence also helped retain momentum in the period after May 9, when a mob supporting then-Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa attacked Gota Go Gama. After Wickremesinghe was appointed prime minister on May 12, many middle-class protesters stopped participating, because they believed he could stabilize the economy and reintroduce a sense of normalcy. As Balasingham Skanthakumar, a Sri Lankan researcher and editor, said, the movement needed groups that could marshal support and “reenergize the aragalaya.” Leftists filled that vacuum.
The Frontline Socialist Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, in particular, have continued to mobilize the public. The former paid attention to citizens’ concerns and sought to funnel people’s emotions about the economic crisis into demonstrations it staged around the country: In June, for instance, people in Colombo held pots and pans in so-called Kitchen Laments to protest the rising cost of food. “We were aware of the dynamics inside society and decided to motivate them further,” Jayagoda said. “We set up the structure for the first protest, and then people copied them and continued.”
While the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna started focusing on campaigning for more seats in the next parliamentary election, which is expected after the 2024 presidential election, it also held events including “50 days of protest” and “100 days of protest.”
Meanwhile, the leftist Inter University Students’ Federation, known as Anthare, held multiple marches and protests. As lawyer and activist Balachandran Gowthaman said, the group had “a big say in any documents that came out of [Gota Go Gama], because they put their bodies where their mouths were.”
The influx of members of these groups contributed to the vast numbers of people who turned up to protest outside the president’s house in July, leading to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation and decision to flee overseas.
Despite leftist groups’ contributions to the movement, they face considerable pushback from across the political spectrum. For one, the public is still concerned about their presence. Some Sri Lankans have accused leftists of attempting to monopolize the movement. Several leftist party members I spoke to denied this, maintaining that they remain committed to a shared ideological space. “We have never branded ourselves or raised a flag [at Gota Go Gama],” said Vrai Cally Balthazar, a Socialist Youth Union member and local politician. Rangana Dewapriya, a national organizer for the Socialist Students Union, echoed this sentiment. Skanthakumar, meanwhile, pointed out that a “plurality of opinions over demands and tactics” existed in documents that came out of Gota Go Gama.
Disinformation has also plagued leftist parties. For instance, rumors circulated that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna asked protesters to occupy Parliament in July, but according to Ariyaratne, a party member had actually asked people to stage a silent protest outside Parliament and tried to stop people from breaking the barricades to enter the building.
The left is facing assaults from the authorities. Since Wickremesinghe became president on July 21, he has used several tactics to squash the protest movement. Armed forces, special task forces, and police have attacked and intimidated protesters, including many leftists, at Gota Go Gama, culminating in the removal of all camps from the site in early August.
Since then, tensions have only worsened as many protesters have received travel bans or have been arrested, intimidated, and harassed. Several anonymous dead bodies have also turned up in Galle Face Green, the beach facing Gota Go Gama, reminiscent of the death of leftist journalist Richard de Zoysa in 1990. Several youth activists, such as Wasantha Mudalige, have been detained under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act despite outcry from the international community.
With the recent attacks, the only arena for the left is electoral politics and preparing for the next election in a few years. One way of garnering support would be to form coalitions and alliances, said researcher Devaka Gunawardena. He pointed out that “political fragmentation” in a lot of mainstream parties as they “recombined and reconfigured” in recent years could provide an example for the left. Examples of this include the birth of Samagi Jana Balawegaya out of the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna out of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
Another option would be to transform the social movement, with its leftist currents, into a political party itself, like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. “I am hopeful a nucleus could rise out of the people’s movement and the popular uprising,” Gunawardena said.
While experts debate the future of leftist parties and question if they can capture broader support, it is clear that the public has opened up to leftist ideas and policies over the course of the people’s movement. The question is whether the left can capitalize on this rare opportunity by formulating an alternative economic plan for the country and transferring the momentum from the protests into representation in Parliament over the next few years. This could, ultimately, bring about the radical transformation of society that Sri Lanka desperately needs.
Devana Senanayake is a journalist from Colombo, Sri Lanka. She focuses on gender, race, class, and the environment and has reported from several countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia.
This article was originally published on Foreign Policy. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.