Will people harp on party politics in future? | Sunday Observer

Will people harp on party politics in future?

26 March, 2023

Our country after winning Independence in 1948 had been ruled by two major political parties namely the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led coalitions until the last Presidential Election (PE) in late 2019.

The UNP was formed by D.S. Senanayake in 1946 with the support of all community leaders who were active members in the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) at the time, the organisation which was clamouring for independence and self-autonomy from the British Empire.

The first parliamentary election was held under the Soulbury Constitution in 1947 and the UNP became victorious under the leadership of D.S. Senanayake who was elected Prime Minister.

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was the first registered political party in the country which was formed in the mid 1930s by its leader Dr. N.M. Perera who marshalled the support of the working class and the rural community in the Kelani Valley District.

He propagated his political ideology effectively against the British rulers and when D.S. Senanayake formed his first Government, Dr. N.M.Perera was elected from the Ruwanwella electorate as the first Opposition Leader of the country.

The prime objective of D.S. Senanayake was to develop the country agriculturally while establishing inter-communal harmony among all communities. Hence he appointed all community leaders such as C. Sundaralingam, T.B.Jayah, and C. Sittampalam in his first Cabinet. His agricultural development projects like Senanayake Samudraya and the Gal Oya Multipurpose Development project was aimed at setting up agricultural colonies in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and letting the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities to intermingle happily so that the ethnic sentiments which had been simmering under the carpet from colonial days would not turn out to be a major issue in time to come. That was his vision.

D.S.Senanayake although not an academic or a professional, was a seasoned politician who represented the State Council for a long time as the Minister in charge of Agriculture.

Policies and principles

Under D.S. Senanayake’s leadership, the party had a clear cut set of policies and principles apart from preserving democracy, improving communal harmony, agriculture development and maintaining the rule of law.

The most significant achievement during his short tenure was the winning of Independence for mother Lanka from the British Empire after 133 years of serfdom.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, an Oxford scholar who was a senior member in the D.S. Senanayake Cabinet realised that he would not succeed D.S. any day, hence he broke away from the UNP in 1949 along with a few others and formed his own party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) with the hand symbol.

The UNP had become already a formidable force to be reckoned with in the political sphere as the vast majority of the countrymen rallied round Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake irrespective of communal or social differences.

Prime Minister Senanayake had an untimely death falling off a horse at Galle Face Green while on his regular exercises and his son Dudley Senanayake who was the Minister of Agriculture was elected Prime Minister by the majority of Members in Parliament. However, Sir John Kothalawela who was also eyeing at the premiership after D.S., was not happy with Dudley’s appointment as the Prime Minister.

Dudley Senanayake who was a thorough democrat immediately went for a fresh election and received a two-thirds majority victory for the first time in parliamentary history in the country. While continuing his late father’s agriculture policy, Dudley Senanayake streamlined UNP party policies to suit the prevailing situation in all other sectors such as health, education, foreign relations, labour and cultural affairs.

However, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake had constant problems and differences of opinion on many matters with his cabinet colleague Sir John Kothalawela. In this backdrop, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake stepped down from the leadership of the party and politics.

Sir John Kothalawela, an ex-military officer, with a straightforward personality took over the leadership of the UNP which had been well consolidated by the two previous leaders. Within a short period into Sir John’s premiership, the popularity of the UNP started dwindling due to his rigid way of handling State affairs.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who broke away from the UNP and formed the SLFP correctly felt the pulse of the people at this hour and launched an aggressive campaign with his brainchild slogan Sanga (Priests), Veda (Physicians), Guru (Teachers), Govi (Farmers) and Kamkaru (Working Class), five major forces whom he effectively marshalled against the Government.

At the General Election (GE) held in 1956, Bandaranaike received a resounding victory reducing the all powerful UNP to just eight Members in Parliament. Prime Minister Bandaranaike made a lot of changes according to his party’s policies and principles on some of which even his own colleagues had reservations. The United Bhikkhu Front, the main segment of his five forces, objected vehemently on his official language policy followed by a number of other issues. There was dissent among his own constituent partners also and finally the Prime Minister was assassinated in 1959 by a bhikkhu called Ven. Thalduwe Somarama thera.

Left wing political parties

In Sri Lankan political history there were a number of radical political parties which emerged such as the Labour Party of A.E. Goonasinghe (the only Sri Lankan who supported the Universal Franchise ), Revolutionary Sama Samaja Party of labour leader Phillip Gunawardena and the Communist Party of Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe and Peter Keunaman.

All these political party leaders had their own political ideologies and a set of followers but none of them were able to make a significant impact on the national political arena other than opposing the Governments in power on most issues and sometimes representing the grievances of their limited membership in Parliament.

With the passage of time they realised that they could never marshal all people for their political ideologies and decided to align with the main political forces. i.e. with the UNP or the SLFP.

In 1965, the Revolutionary Sama Samaja Party leader Phillip Gunawardena and some other Tamil Party leaders aligned with Dudley Senanayake to form the Government. RSSP leader Phillip Gunawardena was appointed Minister of Industries in Dudley’s Cabinet from 1965-1970.

In 1970, a few months before the General Elections, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and Communist Party entered into an agreement with SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike to form an alliance – “ Samagi Peramuna” (United Front). Almost all LSSP candidates and CP candidates won the 1970 election and LSSP leader Dr. N.M. Perera became the Finance Minister while Peter Keunaman of the Communist Party was appointed Minister of Housing and Construction. Leslie and Cholamandaley Gunawardenes were also given Ministerial portfolios.

Dudley Senanayake passed away in 1973 and the undisputed Deputy Leader of the UNP J.R. Jayewardene who was also the Opposition Leader became the party leader of the UNP.

From the day he became the party leader he revolutionised the party mechanism to suit the prevailing political trends and introduced a number of new policies and principles.

One of the chief allegations against the UNP by the left wing leaders was that it is a party of their own relatives of the elite class. They said the UNP stands for Uncle Nephew Party or Unge Nedeyange Pakshaya. JRJ, the astute politician who had correctly read the pulse of the people, appointed a large number of vibrant, energetic and talkative set of young people from ordinary backgrounds as electoral organisers.

All of them were easily elected to Parliament when J.R. Jayewardene had a mammoth victory of over 5/6 majority creating an unprecedented record in the democratic world.

The UNP which came into power in 1977 continuously ruled the country for seventeen years uninterruptedly due to its development and the people-friendly economic policies and the smooth administration of the State affairs based on President J.R. Jayewardene’s vision.

Independent political analysts’ opinion is that there are only two political forces in the country - the UNP and the SLFP - on which the people had reposed their confidence from independence up to the recent years and there is no other vibrant political party which will supersede these two main political parties. It is true that new party ‘Pohottuwa’ had captured power in Parliament and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya had virtually driven away the UNP to the political doldrums but the fact remains that both these parties had benefited from the permanent vote bases of the oldest two major parties.

One school of thought is that if these two old parties reform themselves and launch an aggressive political campaign with new faces with a clear vision for the future, they will be able to regain their lost glory at a future election.

There are well over 100 registered political parties in the country at present. Most of them do not have an adequate vote base or a set of policies and principles or a political vision. Their main purpose is to align with a formidable political party towards an election and obtain a political advantage. It is quite evident when one scrutinises the election results of the past few elections.

New political culture

It is encouraging to see that a new political culture is brewing in the country with the advent of President Ranil Wickremesinghe as he has openly invited all MPs in Parliament to actively take part in the economic development process shedding their political differences for some time until the economy becomes stabilised.

Now that the country has managed to obtain International Monetary Fund (IMF) financial assistance, it should be the duty of all patriotic Members in Parliament to extend the support to the President if they have an iota of love for Mother Lanka.

A few radical extremists may not support the President’s efforts while a substantial majority of Members expressed their sentiments quite favourably for the President’s initiatives and wholeheartedly agreed to make their contribution in this regard.