Political life in Sri Lanka is open and vigorous, with a wide range of views represented among the political parties, many of which have their roots deep in the pre-independence era. In the time since independence, considerations of religion, language, and culture have largely displaced ideology as the issues around which multi-ethnic Sri Lanka's political life evolves. In the last decade, ethnic struggle—and violence—between the government, dominated by majority Sinhalese, and militant minority Tamil separatists has dominated the political process.
The United National Party (UNP) was the main party of the independence movement, and its widely respected leader, D. S. Senanayake, as head of a coalition of which the UNP was the chief unit, became Ceylon's first prime minister after independence. He won a major victory in 1952 and continued in power until he died in 1956. The divided opposition failed to agree on a leader until 1951, when Solomon Bandaranaike left the UNP to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Over the years, the SLFP became the island's other major political party, advocating—like the UNP—a non-aligned foreign policy, with the UNP friendlier to the West, the SFLP, to the former Eastern bloc. Both find their support from within the majority Sinhalese community, and like most other parties, both are led mostly by high caste Sinhalese.
Shortly before the 1956 elections, Bandaranaike formed the People's United Front (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna—MEP), composed of his own SLFP, the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja (LSSP), and a group of independents. The MEP called for the extension of state control, termination of British base rights, nationalization of tea and rubber plantations, and a foreign policy of strict nonalignment. In the elections, the MEP won 51 seats, and Bandaranaike became prime minister, holding power until September 1959 when he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk.
In elections March 1960, the UNP won 50 of the 151 seats at stake, the SLFP, 46 seats, and other parties, the remaining 55. UNP leader Dudley Senanayake failed to muster a majority, and new elections were called for July. In this second round of polling, the UNP won a majority of the popular vote but only 30 seats. The SLFP, led by its slain leader's widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, won 75, and with her supporters on the left, she was able to form a government, becoming the first woman in the world to hold office as prime minister. She committed her government to pursuing continuation of her husband's agenda, including nationalization of enterprises.
In the 15 years that followed, the UNP and the SLFP alternated in power for periods no longer than seven years. In 1965, Dudley Senanayake became prime minister after the UNP won 66 of the 151 legislative seats, but the SLFP's Sirimavo Bandaranaike was returned to power in the 1970 elections as the head of a coalition that included the Trotskyite LSSP and the pro-Soviet Ceylon Communist Party (CCP). In response to an insurrection fomented in 1971 by the Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna (JVP), a militant Sinhalese party in the south, Bandaranaike imposed a state of emergency on the island that lasted for 6 years. She pushed through a new constitution in 1972.
By 1977, Banderanaike's public image had declined. No longer supported by her former coalition partners, she was humiliated at the polls by J. R. Jayewardene's UNP which was returned to power with 51% of the popular vote and 142 of (the then) 168 seats in parliament. The moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which had swept Tamil areas of the north and east, became the major opposition party in parliament with 16 seats and the SLFP representation in the house fell to a bare eight seats.
Jayewardene's sweeping victory enabled him to fulfill the UNP's campaign pledge to introduce a French-style presidential system of government. Forsaking the now-eclipsed office of prime minister, he set out as president to use his new powers to open the economy and to make a new effort to reconcile with the increasingly disaffected Tamil minority. In the local elections and parliamentary by-elections of May 1983, the UNP strengthened its commanding position by gaining control of a majority of municipal and urban councils and winning 14 of 18 parliamentary seats contested.
The CCP and two other leftist groups, the People's Liberation Front and the New Socialist Party, were banned in 1983 on charges of playing a role in the ethnic riots which swept the island in July; leaders of the Communist Party were subsequently arrested. In August 1983, TULF members of parliament, after several fruitless years of negotiations with Jayewardene aimed at devolving power to local levels, were confronted with a constitutional amendment aimed at them by the UNP's two-thirds majority that required all MP's to pledge their allegiance to a unitary state. They abandoned parliament, and by now most have been killed, as the leadership of the Tamil movement fell into the hands of those advocating violence and complete independence as the only sure ways to protect Tamil ethnicity. The TULF was decimated in parliamentary elections in February 1989, which saw the emergence of several small Tamil parties with reputed ties to the rebels.
In presidential elections held in December 1988, Prime Minister Premadasa beat the SLFP's Sirimavo Bandaranaike in a close race marred by ethnic violence. He was sworn in as Jayewardene's successor on 2 January 1989. In February, he led the UNP to a strong victory in parliamentary polling, capturing 125 of the 225 seats under a new proportional voting system; he then named Dingiri Wijetunga as prime minister. These elections also saw the debut of the United Socialist Alliance (USA), a new political grouping set up in 1987 and composed of the SLFP's former coalition partners on the far left, including the CCP, the LSSP, and the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP); the USA took 4 seats, while the SLFP won 67.
In the summer of 1991, Premadasa beat back a sudden challenge to his position by leading members of his party in parliament, suspending the parliament for a month to delay debate on a motion they had filed to impeach him for abuse of his authority. But in a rising tide of violence and assassinations of governmental officials across the island, President Premadasa himself became a victim of a Tamil bomber on 1 May 1993. The Parliament unanimously elected Prime Minister Wijetunga as his successor on 7 May 1993.
A "snap" election called six months early by President Wijetunga as part of his campaign for re-election himself in November 1994 backfired on 16 August 1994 when the voters rejected the UNP by a small margin. In its place, they elected to office a seven-party, leftist coalition—now dubbed the People's Alliance (PA)—led by the SLFP's Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga—mother and daughter, 80 and 49 years of age, respectively. More vigorous but less experienced, the younger Kumaratunga promptly became prime minister.
The results of the elections, by seats won, were as follows: People's Alliance, 105; United National Party, 94; Eelam People's Democratic Party, 9; Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, 7; Tamil United Liberation Front, 5; People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam, 3; Sri Lankan Progressive Front, 1; and the Upcountry People's Front, 1.
Kumaratunga won election on the promise of ending the civil war. Her offers of limited regional autonomy for Tamils within the Sri Lankan state were initially turned down by the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabakaran (most of the moderate Tamil leaders have been assassinated). Her attempts at a military solution were also unsuccessful until a cease-fire and peace talks emerged in 2002. Citing parliament's rejection of her proposals for strengthening the prime minister's powers and for granting regional autonomy to the Tamils, Kumaratunga called for presidential elections ahead of schedule in December 1999. The race between the president and her UNP rival, Ranil Wickremasinghe, was close. However, three days before polling, Kumaratunga was injured in an assassination attempt, bringing out a sympathy vote. She was returned to office with 51.1% of the votes compared to her opponent's 42.7%. In November 1994, presidential elections were held. UNP leader Gamini Dissanayake fell victim to the island's endemic violence and his widow Srima Dissanayake was appointed to run against the younger Kumaratunga. While the latter's political party won only a slim plurality and had to govern by coalition, in the presidential race she won a commanding majority (63%–36%) and, upon becoming president, appointed her mother prime minister.
In the parliamentary elections held 7 December 2001, Wickremasinghe's United National Party took 109 seats, and united with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress's (SLMC) 5 seats to take control of parliament. Kumaratunga's People's Alliance coalition took 77 seats, and the People's United Liberation Front, uniting with the PA, took 16 seats. The Tamil United Liberation Front took 15 seats, the Eelam People's Democratic party took 2 seats, and the Democratic People's Liberation Front secured 1 seat.