August 5: Death knell for two once-leading parties | Daily News

August 5: Death knell for two once-leading parties

The August 5 general elections will definitely mark the death knell for Sri Lanka’s two premier national parties, the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that ruled the country either as a single party or as the leading partner of an alliance for more than three decades each.

Two major national political parties that took turns in ruling the country for seven decades are about to bite the dust, perhaps ending the healthy democratic system, in which these two parties ensured a stable government and a strong Opposition in the Parliament most of the times.

The SLFP was relegated to be a minor partner in the 2015 government, and within five years the UNP too is faced with the danger of reducing itself to be a minor party in Opposition.

Former President Maithripala Sirisena took over the SLFP leadership after the January 8, 2015 Presidential elections and the party became a minor partner in the government, marking the end of its position as alternate national party. In 2001 too, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga allowed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP to run the government for three years until she took over a few ministries and called for fresh parliamentary elections.

The February 2018 Local Government elections marked the emergence of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) as the top national political party, thus relegating the SLFP to the position of a minor party. De-facto SLPP Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa’s charisma alone was sufficient to ensure the SLPP’s acceptance by the masses at the election. He took a leaf out of S W R D Bandaranaike’s 1956 record book that proved a leader could outplay a traditional national party under a new political force acceptable to the people.

Local Government elections

In the Local Government elections SLPP topped the score with 44.6% votes, while the SLFP was reduced to mere 4.44%. However the UNP, polling 32.6% of the votes managed to retain its position as a national party. It is ironical that after six decades, Bandaranaike’s SLFP was relegated to play second fiddle to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP.

SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resounding victory on November 16, 2019, sealed the fate of SLFP as a formidable national party. The SLFP is now, merely a minor partner of the SLPP alliance.

Today the UNP is faced with a similar predicament as nearly 90% of the UNP former MPs are contesting the forthcoming general elections as candidates of Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) headed by former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa. The SJB was formed after an unprecedented leadership struggle between UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa. While Wickremesinghe loyalists wanted to contest as the UNP under the elephant symbol, the Premadasa faction preferred to contest under the ‘telephone’, the symbol of the newly formed alliance, Samagi Jana Balawegaya.

The indications are that in the August 5 general elections SJB is most likely to be the main Opposition party, thus pushing Wickremesinghe’s UNP, a mere shadow of the Grand Old Party formed in 1947, to be a minor party in the Opposition.

Such a scenario would mark the end of the chapter in which two national parties governed Sri Lanka for 70 years in turns. The UNP was founded by leaders of the calbre of Don Stephen Senanayake, Fredrick Richard Senanayake and S W R D Bandaranaike. The UNP was built upon the visions of these great men. They were known as politicians who did not engage in corruption and did not waste public funds. Senanayake was patriotic and adopted home grown agricultural policies. The people, especially the farming community of new settlements in Rajarata in the north Central and Galoya and Ampara in the East are eternally grateful to D. S. Senanayake for the service rendered by him for the economy and development of the country through initiatives like Govi Janapada.

A true democrat

When Dudley was elected to the premiership following the unfortunate demise of his father DS, he was reluctant to hold the post without a mandate from the people and as a true democrat he decided to dissolve Parliament in order to seek a fresh mandate from the people.

The way Dudley Senanayake conducted himself in public life makes him the quintessential democrat in Sri Lankan politics. He was a gem of a human being who bedecked and added value to political sphere with endless humanity. Even the critics agree that the periods of DS and Dudley at the helm of UNP were the most democratic eras of the party. The only blemish one finds in DS was that he had antagonized S W R D Bandaranaike and Sir John Kotalawala as his strategy was to ensure Dudley would succeed him.

Although Dudley became the Prime Minister after the death of DS, he went to polls to get the people’s verdict and succeeded in trouncing Bandaranaike’s newly-formed SLFP. When anti-government protests were rising in 1953, he accepted his responsibility and bowed out. For this magnanimous gesture, the UNPers begged him to re-take the party leadership in 1960. As a true democrat, he resigned within hours after losing the Parliamentary vote in March 1960 and called for fresh elections. He returned to power once again in 1965.

Even UNPers acknowledge that the UNP did not remain the same after the DS and Dudley period. J. R. Jayewardene went to the extent of demanding unsigned resignations letters from all the UNP MPs in 1977 and ruled the party with an iron fist. His successor Ranasinghe Premadasa adopted such autocratic practices, many UNP leaders including intellectual giants of the Party, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake collected signatures to impeach him.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP leader for the last three decades saddled the Central Committee and Executive Committee with his loyalists and succeeded in thwarting all the democratic and undemocratic attempts to oust him from the leadership.


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