The ascension of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to the presidency of Sri Lanka continues the South Asian pattern of family ties leading to democratically elected political power. The Bandaranaikes have been major political figures throughout the country's political history. Kumaratunga's mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who held the office of prime minister three times (from 1960–65, 1970–77, and again in1994), was the first female prime minister anywhere in the world. Chandrika Kumaratunga's brother, Anura Bandaranaike, was a cabinet minister in the UNP cabinet that lost power in the 1994 elections. He defected from the SLFP in April 1994, as a result of his rivalry with his sister.
Part of Chandrika's popularity is due to the perception among the electorate that the family has paid a bloody price for public service. Kumaratunga's husband, Vijaya, a popular actor and politician, was assassinated by Sinhalese extremists on 16 February 1988; her father, Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike, prime minister between 1956–59, was assassinated in September 1959.
As a member of this illustrious Sri Lankan family, it was only a matter of time before Chandrika Kumaratunga joined the political fray. She was first appointed to the position of additional principal director of the Land Reforms Commission during her mother's second term in office. She has also served as chairperson of the Janawasa Commission, Executive Committee member of the Women's League of the SLFP, member of the Executive Committee and the Working Committee of the SLFP, and as the vice president and president of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), a party formed with her late husband, Vijaya.
Kumaratunga left the country after her husband's assassination in 1988 but returned in 1990 to help her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in leading the SLFP. The party was at the head of the People's Alliance that had been formed in the prelude to the 1993 provincial elections. Kumaratunga was instrumental in the victory of the coalition in the Western Province, where she became the chief minister. On 24 June 1994 President D. B. Wijetunga dissolved Parliament and ordered elections for 16 August 1994. By then, Kumaratunga had supplanted her brother, Anura Bandaranaike, as her powerful mother's heir apparent.
Although Kumaratunga was unable to win a clear victory, she was able to form a government and became the prime minister. In the presidential elections in November 1994, after the assassination of UNP candidate Gamini Dissanayake, she faced the latter's widow, Srima. Although Srima was expected to get a lift from the "sympathy" vote, Kumaratunga was able to carve out an impressive victory, with 62% of the vote, becoming the first female president of Sri Lanka. Escaping an assassination attempt three days before polling, Kumaratunga narrowly won a second six-year term as president on 21 December 1999.