Tomorrow, Sri Lanka will once again celebrate Independence Day, as just a year ago three-quarters of a century ago, the country took control of its affairs from its British rulers.
Constitutionally at least, the last 74 years have gone through three different phases: the period from 1948 to 1972 when we remained in Ceylon, electing our own governments but continuing to be a colony of the British Empire and retaining the King or Queen of England as our Head of State.
This was our introduction to democratic governance, although the country has enjoyed universal suffrage since 1931. The formation of political parties and general elections soon followed and the public participated with great enthusiasm.
The period from 1948 to 1972 was characterized by the emergence of a two-party political system, namely the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
It was the UNP that first formed the government under the “Father of the Nation”, DS Senanayake, credited with leading the negotiations with Britain for the granting of independence. Senanayake’s term as the country’s first prime minister was cut short when he died in a tragic accident in 1952.
By this time, however, one of the stalwarts of the UNP, SWRD Bandaranaike, had realized that his future in the UNP might be limited. Bandaranaike crossed the floor of Parliament in 1951 and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
DS Senanayake’s son, Dudley, succeeded him, much to the displeasure of his nephew, Sir John Kotalawela. The 1956 elections marked a turning point for the country: Bandaranaike was elected Prime Minister with the promise of enacting a series of nationalist changes.
It also marked the beginning of a political trend that was to continue until 1977. Voters showed a penchant for changing governments, alternating between UNP and SLFP-led coalitions, overthrowing the incumbent government and electing their rivals in almost every election between 1948 and 1977. .
In the meantime, tragedy struck Bandaranaike when he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. Wijayananda Dahanayake briefly took over as acting prime minister, but Sirimavo Bandaranaike made history when she became the world’s first female prime minister in 1960.
Elected Prime Minister twice in 1960 and 1970, Mrs. Bandaranaike faced a coup staged by military and police during her first term in 1962. During her second term in 1971, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna ( JVP) staged an armed uprising. which was quickly overcome.
Ms. Bandaranaike again made history on May 22, 1972 by promulgating a Republican Constitution. The country ceased to become the British colony of Ceylon and turned into the Republic of Sri Lanka. The Legislative Assembly changed from the British-style Parliament to the National State Assembly (NSA).
Ms. Bandaranaike also unveiled a series of economic reforms that emphasized self-sufficiency. It also took the unprecedented step of postponing the general elections scheduled for 1975 for another two years, counting five years from the promulgation of the Republican Constitution in 1972.
These decisions would prove unpopular and lead to its defeat by the UNP, led by JR Jayewardene in 1977. The UNP won 140 of 168 seats, a majority that has not been repeated to this day. Armed with a steamroller majority, Jayewardene set out to amend the Constitution.
Jayewardene had been in politics for over three decades when he took office. He felt that the tendency of voters to change governments every five years was to the detriment of the country, not allowing for sustainable development as new governments often undid the work of their predecessors.
Jayewardene promulgated a Constitution, with a presidential system of government on September 7, 1978. Jayewardene became the country’s first executive president, renamed the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”. The legislature has again become “Parliament”.
Jayewardene has established an open economy, embarked on an accelerated Mahaweli development program and a free trade zone encouraging foreign investment. These policies were extremely popular and he was re-elected in the country’s first presidential elections in October 1982.
Buoyed by his success, Jayewardene, instead of holding parliamentary polls, attempted to retain his massive majority in Parliament by holding a referendum, with voters being asked whether the term of Parliament should be extended. Jayewardene won the referendum, but it was cited as a major undemocratic act.
Jayewardene held office for the full 12 years of his two terms, the only president to do so. However, the second half of his presidency was marred by the ethnic riots of 1983 which led to terrorism and the emergence and growth of Tamil armed groups as well as the JVP in the South.
When Jayewardene left office, he had signed the Indo-Lankan agreement with India, invited the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) to the northern and eastern provinces and “temporarily” merged these two Tamil-majority provinces, which made him and his government unpopular.
Nevertheless, Ranasinghe Premadasa and the UNP won the ensuing elections which were marred by violence in many areas. Premadasa ensured that the UNP retained a parliamentary majority, but soon faced a revolt from his party with stalwarts Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali teaming up, trying to impeach him.
This marked the end of the UNP’s seventeen-year rule, the longest that a party has ruled the country without interruption. Premadasa was assassinated on May 1, 1993 during a public rally. Mild-mannered Prime Minister DB Wijetunga succeeded him, paving the way for Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to ascend to the presidency in 1994. Kumaratunga’s two terms were mostly unremarkable. The war, then directed against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is gaining momentum. Its Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, probably the best foreign minister Sri Lanka has ever had, succeeded in getting the LTTE outlawed in many countries, but was assassinated by them.
The UNP briefly returned to power in 2001, but Kumaratunga retained the presidency and an SLFP-led government was re-elected in 2004. The 2005 presidential polls saw Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa come to power and there was a shift in the War on Terror, with the new regime pursuing a hardline military option.
This paid off in May 2009, with the annihilation of the LTTE, a feat that even many military experts thought impossible. It’s the end of a 30-year war. The war victory boosted President Rajapaksa’s popularity and he was re-elected for a second term in 2010.
The Constitution was amended, with the 18th Amendment allowing President Rajapaksa to run for an unprecedented third term. However, contrary to expectations, Maithripala Sirisena, who defected from the SLFP and backed by the UNP, was elected the country’s sixth executive president. Elected on a platform of introducing “good governance” and abolishing the executive presidency, Sirisena signed into law the 19th Amendment repealing certain powers of the president. However, he found cohabitation with the UNP difficult, leading to the so-called “constitutional coup” in October 2018. Sirisena sacked Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister and nominated his rival in the presidential elections , Mahinda Rajapaksa, to replace him. He ruled for 52 days. The Supreme Court determined that this was unconstitutional, leading to Wickremesinghe’s return to power. However, the relationship between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe was irrevocably damaged and the SLFP and the UNP went their separate ways. Meanwhile, marginalized by the SLFP led by Sirisena, former President Rajapaksa formed a political party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
SLPP and SJB
The SLPP aligned former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the 2019 presidential election against Sajith Premadasa of the UNP. President Rajapaksa emerged as the decisive winner, garnering 1.3 million more votes than Premadasa.
Wickremesinghe hesitated to give up the leadership of the UNP after successive electoral defeats. This led to most UNPers defecting with Sajith Premadasa to form a new party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) ahead of the 2020 general election.
The last general election, conducted during the coronavirus pandemic in August 2020, was, in a sense, unprecedented. Two new parties, the SLPP and the SJB, became the main ruling and opposition parties. The UNP won only one seat. The SLFP retains 14 deputies within the coalition led by the SLPP. This signals a break with a seven-decade-old pattern that the UNP and SLFP were the dominant players in Sri Lankan politics. Although it is still possible that the SJB will merge with the UNP, especially if Wickremesinghe leaves politics, it is unlikely that the SLFP will merge with the SLPP. The country is also expected to experience a major constitutional change. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a task force to draft a new Constitution. The government retains the two-thirds majority required for the new Constitution to be adopted by Parliament.
Sri Lanka, on the cusp of three-quarters of a century of independence from Britain, envisions a new political culture that could still be a two-party system, but with two different parties vying for power. For now, economic and health concerns are the main concerns of the government.