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Sri Lanka: THE POLITICAL PARTY SYSTEM

One of the most striking features of the political system in the more than four decades since independence has been the existence of viable and generally stable political parties. In the general elections held between 1952 and 1977, a two-party system emerged in which the UNP and the SLFP alternately secured majorities and formed governments. Observers noted, however, that one major failure of the two-party system was the unwillingness or inability of the UNP and the SLFP to recruit substantial support among Tamils. As a result, this minority was largely excluded from party politics.

On the basis of ethnicity, three types of parties could be defined in the late 1980s: Sinhalese-backed parties including the UNP, the SLFP, Marxist parties, such as the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, and the numerically insignificant splinter groups; a largely inoperative Tamil party system composed of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF); and other minority-oriented parties, such as the Ceylon Workers' Party, which enjoyed the support of the Indian Tamils, and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. The situation was complicated by the fact that extremist groups, such as the Sinhalese-based People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna--JVP) in southern Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers based in the Northern and Eastern provinces, challenged the legal parties for popular support. By the late 1980s, both the intransigence of the Jayewardene government and the use of intimidation tactics by extremists in Jaffna District and parts of Eastern Province dramatically reduced popular backing among Tamils for the relatively moderate TULF.

The political party system was also weakened by the determination of the UNP leadership to retain a solid parliamentary majority through the use of constitutional amendments (see Government Institutions , this ch.). During the 1980s, various UNP measures undermined the balance between the two major parties that had been an important factor behind the political stability of the years between 1952 and 1977. The extension of the life of Parliament until 1989 and the passage of the amendment prohibiting the advocacy of separatism, which resulted in the expulsion of TULF members from Parliament, created new political grievances. The Jayewardene government's decision to deprive SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civil rights for seven years for alleged abuses of power in October 1980 also weakened the two-party system because it deprived the SLFP of its popular leader.

Despite drastic constitutional changes since 1972, the party system's British heritage is readily apparent in the clear distinction made between government and opposition legislators in Parliament (sitting, as in Westminster, on opposite benches) and provisions in the 1978 Constitution to prevent defections from one party to another, previously a common practice. Backbenchers are expected to follow the initiatives of party leaders and can be punished with expulsion from the party for failing to observe party discipline.
 

The UNP

The UNP was established in 1946 by prominent nationalist leaders such as Don Stephen Senanayake, who became the country's first prime minister, and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who broke with Senanayake in 1951, establishing the SLFP. The UNP, originally a collection of disparate and jealous factions, was organized to compete in the first general elections in 1947 against leftist parties on the platform of communal harmony, parliamentary democracy, and anticommunism. Between 1946 and the early 1970s, the UNP was organized around power personalities and politically influential families rather than a consistent ideology or a strong party organization. In its early years it was known as the "uncle-nephew party" because of the blood ties between its major leaders. When the first prime minister, Don Stephen Senanayake, died in March 1952, he was succeeded by his son, Dudley. In September 1953, Sir John Kotelawala, Dudley Senanayake's uncle, assumed the leadership of the UNP government and remained in power until April 1956. In the March 1965 general election, Dudley Senanayake again became prime minister at the head of a UNP government. In 1970 leadership of the party passed to a distant relative, Junius Richard (J.R.) Jayewardene. A prominent activist in the preindependence Ceylon National Congress who was elected to the colonial era legislature in 1943, Jayewardene departed from the personality-dominated UNP status quo. Instead, he established a strong party organization and recruited members of the younger generation, traditionally attracted to the leftist parties, to fill UNF party ranks.

In keeping both with the privileged background of its leadership and the need to provide the electorate with a clearcut alternative to the leftist orientation of the SLFP and other groups, the UNP has remained, since independence, a party of the moderate right. Despite the constitutional adoption of the term "Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka" as the country's formal name, the ruling party's policies under Jayewardene have included comprehensive economic liberalization designed to stimulate growth of a market economy, encouragement of foreign investment, a partial dismantling of the country's elaborate welfare state institutions, and closer and friendlier relations with the United States and other Western countries. Because the UNP's popular support is firmly anchored in the Sinhalesemajority regions of central, southern, and western Sri Lanka, it has had to compromise with rising grass-roots sentiment against the Tamil minority as ethnic polarities intensified during the 1980s. Historically, however, it is less closely identified with Sinhalese chauvinism than its major rival, the SLFP.

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party

In 1951 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike led his faction, the Sinhala Maha Sabha, out of the ruling UNP and established the SLFP. Bandaranaike had organized the Sinhala Maha Sabha in 1937 in order to promote Sinhalese culture and community interests. Since the 1950s, SLFP platforms have reflected the earlier organization's emphasis on appealing to the sentiments of the Sinhalese masses in rural areas. To this basis has been added the antiestablishment appeal of nonrevolutionary socialism. On the sensitive issue of language, the party originally espoused the use of both Sinhala and Tamil as national languages, but in the mid-1950s it adopted a "Sinhala only" policy. As the champion of the Buddhist religion, the SLFP has customarily relied upon the socially and politically influential Buddhist clergy, the sangha, to carry its message to the Sinhalese villages.

Another important constituency has been the Sinhalese middle class, whose members have resented alleged Tamil domination of the professions, commerce, and the civil service since the British colonial era. In contrast to the free market orientation of the UNP, the SLFP's policies have included economic selfsufficiency , nationalization of major enterprises, creation of a comprehensive welfare state, redistribution of wealth, and a nonaligned foreign policy that favored close ties with socialist countries. It has, however, refused to embrace Marxism as its guiding ideology.

Like the UNP, the SLFP has been a "family party." S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959. After a brief and somewhat chaotic interregnum, his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was chosen as party leader. In the July 1960 general election, the party won 75 out of 151 parliamentary seats, and in a coalition with Marxist parties, Mrs. Banaranaike became the world's first democratically elected female head of government. Although she was obliged to step down from party leadership after her civil rights were taken away in October 1980 on charges of corruption and abuse of power, she resumed leadership of the SLFP following a government pardon granted on January 1, 1986.

In 1977 six members of the SLFP left the party and formed a new group, the People's Democratic Party (PDP--Mahajana Prajathanthra). A second group, the Sri Lanka People's Party (SLMP--Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya), was formed in 1984 by a daughter of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Chandrika Kumaratunge, and her husband Vijay Kumaratunge. They claimed that the original SLFP, under the leadership of Sirimavo Bandaranaike's son, Anura, was excessively right wing and had become an instrument of the Jayewardene government. Although Sirimavo Bandaranaike reentered politics and assumed a leadership position within the SLFP after her 1986 pardon, Anura Bandaranaike remained leader of the parliamentary opposition. Neither the PDP nor the SLPP had representation in Parliament in 1988.

During the late 1980s, the SLFP and the breakaway SLPP remained split on the sensitive issue of negotiations with Tamil separatists. The former opposed the granting of significant concessions to the militants while the latter joined the UNP in supporting them. In 1986 Sirimavo Bandaranaike and politically active members of the Buddhist leadership established the Movement for Defense of the Nation in order to campaign against proposed grants of regional autonomy to the Tamils.

The Marxist Parties

In the late 1980s, Sri Lanka had two long-established Marxist parties. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was founded in 1935 and remained in the late 1980s one of the very few MarxistLeninist parties in the world to associate itself with the revolutionary doctrines of Leon Trotsky. This connection made it attractive to independent-minded Marxists who resented ideological subservience to Moscow and who aspired to adapt Marxism to Sri Lankan conditions. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the LSSP functioned as the primary opposition party, but its fortunes declined after the emergence of the non-Marxist SLFP. Like the SLPP, the LSSP joined with the ruling UNP in the mid-1980s to support a negotiated settlement with Tamil militants but in 1988 did not have members in Parliament. The New Equal Society Party (Nava Sama Samaja Party--NSSP) was in 1987 a breakaway faction of the LSSP.

The Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) was established in 1943 and continued in the late 1980s to follow the direction of the Soviet Union on matters of ideology. Banned briefly in July 1983 along with the JVP and the NSSP, in 1987 it had limited popular support.

Tamil United Liberation Front

With very few exceptions, Sri Lankan Tamils have tended to support their own parties and candidates rather than vote for the UNP, SLFP, or the Marxist parties. In the July 1977 general election, for example, only 9 percent of the voters in the Tamilmajority Northern Province supported the two major parties (the UNP, less closely associated with Sinhalese chauvinism from the Tamil viewpoint than the SLFP, won 8 of the 9 percent). In the years following independence, the most important Tamil party was the Tamil Congress, led by G.G. Ponnambalam, one of the major figures in the independence movement. A breakaway group led by another figure, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, founded a second party, the Federal Party, which began to make inroads into the Tamil Congress' constituency by advancing proposals for a federal state structure that would grant Tamils substantial autonomy.

In the early 1970s, several Tamil political groups, including the Tamil Congress and the Federal Party, formed the Tamil United Front (TUF). With the group's adoption in 1976 of a demand for an independent state, a "secular, socialist state of Tamil Eelam," it changed its name to the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). In the general election of July 1977, TULF won eighteen seats in the legislature, including all fourteen seats contested in the Jaffna Peninsula. In October 1983, all the TULF legislators, numbering sixteen at the time, forfeited their seats in Parliament for refusing to swear an oath unconditionally renouncing support for a separate state in accordance with the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. In an atmosphere of intensifying ethnic violence and polarization, their resignations deprived Sri Lankan Tamils of a role in the legal political process and increased tremendously the appeal of extremist groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (see Tamil Militant Groups , this ch.). But in December 1985, the TULF leadership softened its position and proposed that an autonomous Tamil State could be established within the Sri Lankan constitutional framework in a manner similar to the federal states of India.

Other Parties

The Ceylon Workers' Congress, headed in 1988 by Suvumyamoorthy Thondaman, originally joined with other Tamil groups to form TULF, but withdrew from the party after the July 1977 general election, when Jayewardene offered Thondaman a post in the UNP cabinet. In the late 1980s, the Ceylon Workers' Congress, with one representative, Thondaman, in Parliament, continued to cooperate with the ruling party. This was politically feasible because its principal supporters, Indian Tamils located for the most part in the central part of the country, were unresponsive to the Sri Lankan Tamils' call for an independent state in the north. In December 1986, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, based in the Eastern Province, announced its determination to become a national political party. Electoral Performance

In general elections between 1952 and 1977, the two major parties have alternately secured majorities: the SLFP in 1956, July 1960 (elections were held in both March and July 1960), and 1970; and the UNP in 1952, March 1960, 1965, and 1977. To govern effectively, each party has formed coalitions with smaller groups. The two major parties, however, have together gained a progressively larger percentage of the popular vote at the expense of the smaller groups: from 59.5 percent of the total vote in 1952 to 80.6 percent in 1977 (see table 12, Appendix A). In the July 1977 general election, the UNP, benefiting from widespread public disaffection with the leftist policies of the SLFP, won the largest majority in history: 50.9 percent of the popular vote and 140 out of 168 seats contested. The SLFP's parliamentary representation dropped dramatically from 91 to 8 seats, though it garnered 29.7 percent of the vote. With its eighteen seats, the TULF became the principal opposition party. Two seats were won by the Ceylon Workers' Congress and an independent. The two Marxist parties, the LSSP and the CPSL, failed to win representation. Parliamentary elections have typically included a large number of independent candidates, but the number elected has steadily declined since 1947. In July 1977, there were 295 independents running without party affiliation, but only 1 secured a parliamentary seat.

By-elections for eighteen parliamentary seats that became vacant after the resignation of UNP members were held in May 1983 in tandem with local government elections. These were conducted under the system of proportional representation outlined in the Constitution. The UNP won fourteen of the contests, the SLFP won three, and the People's United Front won one. Further byelections were held during the 1984-86 period.

Sri Lanka has had only one presidential election since promulgation of the 1978 Constitution. This occurred on October 20, 1982. Six candidates participated. The deeply divided SLFP, deprived of its most popular leader, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, put up Hector Kobbekaduwa, an obscure candidate who had served as minister of agriculture in a SLFP government. Kobbekaduwa won 39.1 percent of the vote, compared to the incumbent Jayewardene's 52.9 percent. The four other candidates, who together won only 8.1 percent of the vote, represented the JVP, LSSP, NSSP, and the Tamil Congress.

@Library of Congress