Although Sri Lanka is a unitary state, it is nonetheless divided into nine provinces (out of which 2 have been later amalgamated for the purpose of establishing one provincial council) whose borders follow historic and traditional lines. The key administrative unit has traditionally been the district, into which the provinces are further divided. There are a total of 25 districts under the control of senior civil servants who are district officers responsible to the government in Colombo for ensuring justice, maintaining law and order, collecting revenues, and allocating development funds. There is, in addition a system of district ministers that was created after 1978 to assist the district officers and to provide a political input at the district level. Appointed by the president, district ministers are members of parliament but from a constituency other than one in the district for whom they bear district responsibility. Not full members of the cabinet, they nonetheless sit with the president in the Council of Ministers and otherwise enjoy ministerial perquisites.
Districts are also served in rural areas by popularly elected district councils which have limited powers but which assist the district officer and the district minister in assessing public views and mood and in setting development priorities. Municipal councils, urban councils, and Pradeshiya Sabhas perform a similar function in urban and rural areas. Their term of office is four years. Currently there are 14 municipal councils, 37 urban councils and 258 Pradeshiya Sabhas. In general, municipal councils are established for cities and large towns, urban councils for less urbanized areas and Pradeshiya Sabhas for rural areas.
In conformity with Indo-Lankan agreement in 1987 to devolve power to the provinces, the parliament voted to establish, at the provincial level, elected councils headed by chief ministers. In presence of the IPKF in 1988, elections were held to these provincial councils (PC), and the UNP took control of 7 in non-Tamil areas; the ERPLF, a new, anti-LTTE Tamil party supported at the time by the IPKF, took control of the two in the Tamil north and east. While unsettled conditions have slowed progress on devolution, elections to the seven PCs in non-Tamil areas in 1993 reportedly produced more mixed results, with gains and losses for all parties, including the UNP, the SLFP, and the ERPLF. Although the PA was successful in gaining control of provincial councils in elections held in 1997 and 1999, its share of the popular vote show it running neck and neck with the opposition. For example, in elections held in April 1999 in non-Tamil areas, the PA gained control of all the provincial councils contested, but only achieved 43% of the votes compared to the UNP's 41%. However, district elections for Colombo held on 10 October 2000 saw the UNP take 43.45% of the vote to the People's Alliance's 38.86%. In local elections held in March 2002, the UNP won a sweeping victory, taking all but 5 of the 222 councils that voted.