One of the most striking features of the political system in the more than four decades since independence has been the existence of viable and generally stable political parties.
In the general elections held between 1952 and 1977, a two-party system emerged in which the UNP and the SLFP alternately secured majorities and formed governments.
Observers noted, however, that one major failure of the two-party system was the unwillingness or inability of the UNP and the SLFP to recruit substantial support among Tamils. As a result, this minority was largely excluded from party politics. On the basis of ethnicity, three types of parties could be defined in the late 1980s: Sinhalese-backed parties including the UNP, the SLFP, Marxist parties, such as the Lanka Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, and the numerically insignificant splinter groups; a largely inoperative Tamil party system composed of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF); and other minority-oriented parties, such as the Ceylon Workers' Party, which enjoyed the support of the Indian Tamils, and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.
The situation was complicated by the fact that extremist groups, such as the Sinhalese-based People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna-JVP) in southern Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers based in the Northern and Eastern provinces, challenged the legal parties for popular support. By the late 1980s, both the intransigence of the Jayewardene government and the use of intimidation tactics by extremists in Jaffna District and parts of Eastern Province dramatically reduced popular backing among Tamils for the relatively moderate TULF.
The political party system was also weakened by the determination of the UNP leadership to retain a solid parliamentary majority through the use of constitutional amendments. During the 1980s, various UNP measures undermined the balance between the two major parties that had been an important factor behind the political stability of the years between 1952 and 1977.
The extension of the life of Parliament until 1989 and the passage of the amendment prohibiting the advocacy of separatism, which resulted in the expulsion of TULF members from Parliament, created new political grievances. The Jayewardene government's decision to deprive SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civil rights for seven years for alleged abuses of power in October 1980 also weakened the two-party system because it deprived the SLFP of its popular leader.
Despite drastic constitutional changes since 1972, the party system's British heritage is readily apparent in the clear distinction made between government and opposition legislators in Parliament (sitting, as in Westminster, on opposite benches) and provisions in the 1978 Constitution to prevent defections from one party to another, previously a common practice. Backbenchers are expected to follow the initiatives of party leaders and can be punished with expulsion from the party for failing to observe party discipline.
The first general elections of 1947 resulted in a qualified victory for Don Stephen Senanayake and his newly formed UNP which claimed credit for the new-found independence.
As the leftists were divided, the UNP could win more than half of the seats while the Tamil Congress emerged as the dominant party in Tamil areas. In this process the UNP's dominance continued in the early 1950s. When D.S Senanayake died in 1952, his son Dudley Senanayake took over the reins and led the UNP to a massive victory in the general elections that year. However, the UNP received a major challenge, when Solomon Bandaranayeke broke away from it and formed a new party, the SLFP.
The SLFP's populist programme offering political change, social justice and economic independence from external control appealed to the masses as it emphasized on economic development and economic equality. It attracted the major chunk of rural votes and the sizeable protest vote that had gone to the Marxist parties for want of a democratic alternative to the UNP. By the mid- 50s, the position of the UNP was undermined, even though its hold on parliament appeared to be as strong as ever.
The economy was in a bad shape after a period of prosperity. An attempt to reduce the budgetary allocation for food subsidies provoked violent opposition from the left-wing parties. Moreover, the religious, cultural and linguistic issues were gathering momentum with the rise of Buddhist Sinhalese sentiments. In this situation, Bandaranaike's SLFP which championed the cause of Buddhist Sinhalese swept the polls defeating the UNP in the 1956 general elections. With the SLFP in power, the Buddhist Sinhalese agenda now came to be implemented at the expense of the minorities.
For instance, the new government adopted the Official Language Act, which declared Sinhala as the official language. The act caused a reaction among Tamils, who perceived their language, culture, and economic position to blender attack. The Federal Party launched a Satyagraha (nonviolent protest) that resulted in a pact between S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. The agreement provided a wide measure of Tamil autonomic Northern and Eastern provinces.
It also provided for the use of the Tamil language in administrative matters. But the pact could not be implemented because of a peaceful protest by Buddhist clergy, who, with support from the UNP, denounced the pact as a Betrayal of Sinhalese Buddhist people. These serious differences between the Sinhalese and Tamils ultimately resulted in race riots. On economic front, the SLFP under Mrs. Bandaranaike also carried out the nationalisation of economic enterprise.
The socialist pattern was found suitable in redressing the balance in favour of Sinhalese Buddhists as the island's economy was dominated by the foreign capitalists. In the mid 1960s, there was a new alignment of political forces at the centre with Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaj Party (LSSP) joining the SLFP government in coalition.
The SLFP's shift to the left was a calculated move. It was designed to stabilise the government after extended periods of emergency rule and serious ethnic and religious confrontations under Mrs. Bandaranaike's rule. However, with the emergence of internal rifts within the SLFP, the party lost mandate in the general election of March, 1965. A coalition of parties led by Dudley Senanayake's UNP returned to power in the 1965 elections. During its tenure, the UNP dominated coalition attempted to maximise agricultural productivity to achieve self-sufficiency in food-grains production. Dudley Senanayake gave importance to ethnic and religious reconciliation in his government's policy as he had formed the coalition government with the Federal Party (FP).
On the other side, the opposition led by the SLFP, had entered into a loose alliance with the leftists. Such a balance of forces at the political level had also raised the issue of predominance of the Sinhalese Buddhists in its background. Gradually, the competitive populist politics resulted in the decline of status of ethnic and religious minorities. In the 1970 general elections, the SLFP fought the election in alliance with left parties such as the Communist Party (CP) and the LSSP.
In its manifesto, it promised to introduce a republican constitution with new political institutions that reflected indigenous values more perfectly than the 1946 constitution. The SLFP alliance defeated the UNP and formed a government under the banner of United Front (UF). In 1972, the UF dominated legislature adopted a republican constitution that introduced presidential system.
However, the new government, like the previous UNP government faced serious problems like unemployment, rising prices, scarcity of food items. It should be noted that like most of the developing countries, Sri Lanka faced serious problems due to rise of cost imports in 1970's. In these circumstances the government's move to reduce subsidies for food made the UF government unpopular.
The UF government faced a serious threat when in April 1971, a leftist group known as the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or Peoples Liberation Front launched blitzkrieg operation to take over the country. The JVP insurrection was suppressed only after considerable fighting during a protracted state of emergency declared by the government.
The JYP movement for the revolutionary transformation of society, as subsequent developments show, had impact on economic and social spheres. The economic and political crisis led the UF government to adopt authoritarian measures to meet the exigencies. It vigorously carried out the nationalisation of plantations. In the aftermath of the JVP insurrection, the government sought to adopt a new republican and indigenous constitution in order to bring under its control the reactionary elements in the society.