Liberal Party, 25 years later
||E. W. Perera
Political parties were not recognized in order to contest elections
at the introduction of universal suffrage under the Donoughmore
Constitution but political groupings were visible within the political
space and the electoral mechanism. Four significant political groupings
in the first ever election to the State Council were Labour Party,
Ceylon National Congress, Unionists and the Liberal League under the
leadership of E. W. Perera (Lion of Kotte), Liberal League contested in
Colombo Central, (T. B. Jayah), Colombo North (R. Saravanamuttu-won),
Dumbara (J. A. Halangoda), Gampola (T. B. Panabokke-won), Hatton (P.
Sundaram-won), Horana (E. W. Perera-won), Kandy (F. A. Seneviratne),
Kalutara (C. Batuwanthudawe-won), Katugampola (R. S. Tennekoon-won),
Mannar-Mulativu (G. G. Ponnambalam), Matale (W. T. B. Karalliyadda-won),
Matara (J. H. P. Wijemanne) Narammala (G. E. Madawala-won), Nuwara Eliya
(E. W. Abeygoonarsekara-won), Puttalam (F. C .S. Storer), Ruwanwella (J.
H. Meedeniya-won), Weligama (D. Wanigasekera-won) and was looked as a
formidable force in the beginning of the Donoughmore period.
However as the Donoughmore system, did not allow the development of
political parties and for various other reasons, Liberal League
gradually disappeared by 1936. Ceylon National Congress remained as the
major force in politics in the third decade of the 20th century.
There is no doubt that early liberals had been influenced by the
Liberal Party of the United Kingdom (UK) but in the 1930's the Liberal
Party of UK was diminishing as a major political contender as a result
of a major split and two major groups of liberals joined the
Conservative Party and newly formed Labour Party and thus ending the
dominance of the Liberal Party. Only in 2010 British Liberals were able
to enter the government almost after 80 years.
Second phase of Liberalism
Second phase of liberal politics began in Sri Lanka with the
formation of the Liberal Party on January 19, 1987 which was later
registered under the Election Commissioner in 1988.
The forerunner to the party was Council of Liberal Democracy that was
organized by a group of upper middle class educated youths to agitate
against authoritarian tendencies of the J R Jayewardene government
manifested in the ill-famous referendum to extend to duration of the
Parliament that was elected in 1977.
Founder leader of the Liberal Party was Dr Chanaka Amaratunga a young
intellectual who had completed his studies from the Oxford University
and London School of Economics.
Liberal Party constitution categorically states that the party stands
for the ideology of liberalism as opposed to populism, socialism and all
Liberals believe that the task of the state is to widen individual
freedom that has a direct impact on development.
Party under Chanaka
During the 25 years the Liberal Party came under three leaders. Dr.
Chanaka Amaratunga was the undisputed leader of the party until his
untimely death in 1996. The nine years records the interaction of the
party in various political issues with special emphasis on
constitutional reforms. It had limited electoral success at the first
ever provincial council election in 1988. At the Gampaha district owing
to the reason that Sri Lanka Freedom Party did not contest the election
the Liberal Party won two seats. Chanaka's overall strategy was to enter
the Parliament through an alliance against J R Jayewardene regime that
worsened the national question as well as the principles of democracy.
Though the party played a vital role with late Kumar Ponnambalam in
drafting the election manifesto of Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1989, United
National Party once again emerged the victorious party. Though Chanaka
was a national list candidate under SLFP, there was no opportunity to
the elected. With change in leadership of the United National Party in
1989 Liberal Party was leaning towards UNP in order to have an alliance
and this came to end with the tragic death of R Premadasa. After the
demise of R. Premadasa then leaders, D. B. Wijetunga and Ranil
Wickremesinghe did not tolerate such an alliance with the Liberal Party.
In 1994 general election, Liberal Party formed an official alliance
with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress under the leadership of late A. H. M.
Ashroff and to his credit he wanted to keep the promises alive. However
Chandrika Kumaratunga was determined not to get Chanaka in and also a
segment of the Muslim Congress high command was also opposing Chanaka's
entrance into Parliament and subsequently Asitha Perera, Senior Vice
President of the Liberal Party was nominated as first ever Liberal Party
member of Parliament through the national list of the Muslim Congress.
In the 1994 Presidential election, Liberal Party decided to support UNP
candidate Gamini Dissanayake. Liberal Party leader was instrumental in
drafting Dissanayake's manifesto. Assassination of Dissanayake by the
LTTE ended up the loose alliance with Gamini Dissanayake. Chanaka's
tragic death in 1996 ended the first phase of the Liberal Party. Mrs
Swarna Amaratunga, Chanaka's mother joined the party and she now holds
the post of president.
Rajiva as leader
In 1996 after Chanaka's demise, the national committee of the Liberal
Party elected Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, President of the party as the
acting leader unanimously. In 1997 the national congress endorsed the
leadership of Rajiva Wijesinha. Under his leadership it was decided that
the party should outreach and get many organizers from the outstations.
As a result of this decision Liberal Party wanted to contest the 1999
Presidential election and Rajiva was the candidate and also contested
the 2000 general election in almost all districts. All subsequent
elections were contested by the party at selected districts. Worth to
mention is Rathnapura Municipal election in 2002. During the period of
Rajiva's tenure party got electoral successes in Dompe (PS), Kobeigane
(PS) and Gampaha (MC).
The party in 2005 was to take a stand on the Presidential election
and was of the opinion that UNP was unable to face the challenge posed
by LTTE and decided to support the new candidate of the SLFP Mahinda
Rajapaksa. The party was involved in the UPFA campaign through Kamal
Nissanka then the Secretary General.
Kamal leads the party
After 10 years in leadership Rajiva opted to step down and the party
unanimously decided to appoint Kamal Nissanka, a graduate from the
University of Peradeniya and an Attorney-at-Law as the third leader of
Under Nissanka's leadership party was able to maintain very good
rapport with SLFP and UPFA. In 2010 he was able to negotiate with SLFP
and UPFA to get a national list seat for the party and party decided to
propose Rajiva Wijesinha as its nominee and informed the Secretary
General of UPFA, Susil Premajayantha.
During the period concerned Liberal Party was offered the
chairmanship of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD)
composed of 12 Asian political parties. During this period international
image of the party was grown. Under Nissanka's tenure party's
organizational structure was also developed and it has now a workers
union, youth wing and women's wing. Party has increased the membership
of the national committee, the highest decision-making body up to 23
In the last congress of the party held on December 18, 2011, party
unanimously elected Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, as the leader considering
his presence in the Parliament and in order to promote the party's
national image. Nissanka continues to serve as the Secretary General and
the de facto national organizer of the Liberal Party. Liberal Party has
now decided to organize the party in more positive manner as the
policies of some major parties are outdated.