Exploring new pathways to governance | Daily News

Exploring new pathways to governance

Evolution of parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s sixteenth legislature since Independence will convene for the first time today, marking yet another era in the country’s rich democratic history that dates back to 1931 when, as a British colony, it granted the universal franchise to all its citizens, becoming the oldest democracy in Asia to do so.

Universal franchise- the right to vote without discrimination regarding race, ethnicity or gender- was a rarity at that time. Few countries enjoyed that privilege. Following the granting of universal franchise, the country’s first elections to choose representatives for its State Council were held in 1931.

Elections to the State Council were not based on a party system. The State Council consisted of fifty members. They met at the old Parliament building at Galle Face which now houses the Presidential Secretariat. The Second State Council, elected in 1936, was in office from 1936 until 1947.

The country’s first Parliament was elected in 1947, prior to the granting of independence from Britain. The oldest political party, the Lanka Sama Samaaja Party (LSSP), formed in 1935 and the United National Party (UNP), founded in 1946, were in contention. The UNP won the 1947 general election.

The first parliament consisted of 95 seats. The UNP won 42 seats and fell short of an absolute majority. However, it formed a government in alliance with the All Ceylon Tamil Congress led by G.G. Ponnambalam, which won seven seats in the North of the country. The LSSP won ten seats.

It was to this government that the British handed over power after granting independence to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. The leader of the UNP, D.S. Senanayake, was the country’s first elected Prime Minister, even prior to the granting of independence.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who realised that his political ambitions were unlikely to materialise in the UNP which also had D.S. Senanayake’s son Dudley in its ranks broke away from the UNP and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (UNP) in 1951. The SLFP had more nationalist policies.

D.S. Senanayake passed away suddenly on March 22, 1952. The mantle of the premiership, for which John Kotelawala made a bid, however, passed on to Dudley Senanayake who led the UNP to the General Election in May that year. The UNP won 54 seats. The SLFP and the LSPP won 9 seats each.

This election was arguably the first which marked the beginning of a two-party system of politics in the country. From then onwards right until the general elections held in 2015, the UNP and the SLFP- or coalitions led by them- vied for power and ruled the country alternatively.

In 1953, a civil disobedience campaign styled the ‘hartal’ was staged to protest against a series of economic measures introduced by the government. This led to Dudley Senanayake’s resignation as Prime Minister. The UNP remained in power. John Kotelawala assumed duties as the new Premier.


The 1956 elections are considered a watershed in Sri Lankan politics. The SLFP led coalition, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) led by S.W.R. D. Bandaranaike offered to declare Sinhala as the official language. The MEP swept the poll, winning 51 seats, to the LSSP’s 14 and the UNP’s eight.

Bandaranaike introduced radical language and economic reforms upon being elected to power but his political journey was cut short when he was assassinated on September 26, 1959. Wijeyananda Dahanayake, Minister of Education in Bandaranaike’s Cabinet took over as Prime Minister.

Dahanayake was unsuccessful in holding the MEP-led coalition together. When elections were called, the SLFP contested separately. The UNP, which was again led by Dudley Senanayake who had returned to politics, won the March 1960 general election, with 50 seats, to the SLFP’s 46 seats.

However, Senanayake’s government was short-lived. Lacking an absolute majority in Parliament with only 50 seats in the legislature which now had 151 seats, Senanayake was unable to form a stable government and was forced to call for fresh elections which were held in July 1960.

By this time, the SLFP has regrouped and put forward Sirimavo Bandaranaike as its leader and Prime Ministerial candidate. The sight of the weeping Ms Bandaranaike on political platforms struck a powerful chord with voters. The SLFP won the election with 75 seats to the UNP’s 30 seats.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike also made history as the world’s first female Prime Minister. However, she was unable to last her full term as Prime Minister. In December 1964, the government lost its majority in trying to enact legislation to nationalise Lake House, forcing an early election in 1965.

The 1965 elections saw a reversal of political fortunes for the two major parties. Again led by Dudley Senanayake and Sirima Bandaranaike, the UNP emerged victorious with 66 seats to the SLFP’s 41 seats. The UNP formed a government in coalition with the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchchi (ITAK).

Dudley Senanayake and Sirima Bandaranaike were rivals for a third general election in 1970. The SLFP, now partnering with the LSSP and the Communist Party (CP) and forming the United Front (UF) won a two-thirds majority, winning 110 of the 151 seats. The UNP was reduced to 17 seats.

Republican constitution

The Sirimavo Bandaranaike government of 1970 used this victory to replace the Soulbury Constitution. The 1970 election was the last held under the Soulbury constitution. The United Front government established the Republic of Sri Lanka on May 22, 1972, enacting a republican constitution.

The Bandaranaike government declared that its term of office was five years from the day the new Constitution was enacted, leading to mass-scale protests from the opposition which was now led by J.R. Jayewardene who was the new leader of the UNP after Dudley Senanayake passed away in 1973.

The 1977 election marked another watershed in Lankan parliamentary politics. The UNP recorded a resounding five-sixth majority, winning 140 of the now 168-seat Parliament, the SLFP winning just eight seats. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) won 18 seats, mostly in the North.

Again, Jayewardene used his majority to enact a new Constitution with radical changes to the parliamentary system. A presidential system of government with an elected President wielding executive powers was introduced in the 1978 Constitution. Parliament retained legislative authority.

The next General Elections were due in 1983 but, after winning the country’s first presidential election in October 1982, Jayewardene opted to extend the life of Parliament by conducting a Referendum in December 1982. The results of the controversial referendum allowed him to do so.

The next Parliamentary Election was held in 1989 and was the first Parliamentary Election held under the proportional representation (PR) system. With Ranasinghe Premadasa replacing Jayewardene as leader of the UNP and President, the UNP won with 125 seats; the SLFP won 67 seats.

By 1994, with the UNP’s popularity was waning and D.B. Wijetunge had replaced Premadasa who was assassinated. The SLFP-led coalition, the Peoples’ Alliance (PA) swept into power ending 17 years of UNP rule, winning 105 seats, to the UNP’s 94. It governed with the support of other parties.

Chandrika Kumaratunga, who led the PA to victory was initially sworn in as Prime Minister but went on to be elected President, paving the way for Sirimavo Bandaranaike to become the only elected and appointed Premier the country ever had. The UNP leadership passed on to Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The December 1999 Presidential Elections saw Kumaratunga being re-elected. She called for elections in October 2000. The PA emerged the single largest party with 107 seats and the UNP won 89 seats. However, the PA lost the support of its allied parties and elections were called in December 2001.

The 2001 election returned the UNP to power with Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. Now it was the turn of the UNP to form a coalition in the form of the United National Front (UNF) which won 109 seats to the PA’s 77. Again, the UNF had to govern with the support of other parties.

Tensions between the two major parties, the UNP and the SLFP, and its leaders Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe escalated in 2004, with Kumaratunga dissolving Parliament prematurely. The SLFP-led United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won the 2004 election with 105 seats to the UNP’s 82.

Significant changes

The life of Parliament now being six years, this Parliament lasted its full tenure until 2010. By that time significant changes had occurred in the political landscape. Kumaratunga had retired after two terms as President and was succeeded by Mahinda Rajapaksa both as President and UPFA leader.

President Rajapaksa gave leadership to the Eelam war effort to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009. Riding on this wave of popularity, he led the UPFA to victory at the 2010 poll, winning 144 seats. The UNP won only 67 seats. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 14 seats.

The next General Elections were held in August 2015. This was against a backdrop of Maithripala Sirisena being elected President in January that year. The UNP led coalition, the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) won 106 seats to the UPFA’s 95. The TNA won 16 seats.

Due to the fact that President Sirisena was in office, a group of MPs elected from the UPFA supported the UNFGG-led government and joined the Cabinet. This enabled the government to enact the 19th Amendment which, among other changes, reduced the term of office of Parliament to five years.

The recently concluded general election and the resultant 16th Parliament mark a significant departure from Parliaments in the past. That is because the two major parties are the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) winning 145 and 54 seats respectively.

They are offshoots of the SLFP and the UNP respectively. Some SLFPers have been returned while contesting on the SLPP ticket while the UNP has been reduced to the ignominy of one National List seat. It remains to be seen whether this Parliament will see the demise of these two major parties.

When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa opens the new session of Parliament today, it will mark a new chapter in the two-party democratic framework of Sri Lanka. The two-thirds working majority the ruling party enjoys also suggests that this Parliament will be exploring new pathways to governance.