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Sri Lanka - Political Parties

Sri Lanka is a stable parliamentary democracy. In 1978, it shifted away from a socialist orientation and opened to foreign investment, although changes in government have often been accompanied by reversals in economic policy. Of the two major parties, the more pro-business United National Party has been in opposition in recent years. When it last held power, from 2002 to 2004, it pursued privatization and regulatory reform welcomed by domestic and foreign investors.

Most of the major trade unions are affiliated with political parties, creating a highly politicized labor environment. In many ases several unions, affiliated with different political parties, work together at state-owned enterprises. This is not the case for private companies, which only have one union or perhaps a workers' council to represent the employees.

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.

One of the most striking features of the political system in the 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 Sama 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.

By the end of 2011 there were 67 registered political parties in Sri Lanka, but for many years at least 30 of them had not engaged in active politics. On 23 January 2012 the Elections Department decided to suspend the registration of 30 political parties, which had failed to submit relevant documents such as their statements of accounts and policy statements for several years.

Some small parties acted as proxies for the major parties in the run-up to the elections. The major parties usually nominated their members under the banner of small parties to increase the number of counting agents and polling booth representatives. They also used the small parties to get more and more air time allocated to them in the electronic media during election times. In the 2010 presidential election there were initially 13 candidates, but most of them eventually withdrew their candidacy before the election after pledging their support to the main candidates.

Major Electoral Alliances - 2010 Election

In the pre-nomination period, the parties work furiously to confirm and solidify alliances, so that they can run joint campaigns, and appear on the ballot under one symbol and one coalition name.
United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA)
In the past, there had been off-and-on talk of the two major parties, i.e., the UNF and the SLFP, forming some sort of "national" government, but those proposals went nowhere. In fact, the SLFP had discussed a formal alignment with the radical Janantha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) party. In January 2004, the SLFP and the Sinhala nationalist JVP formed the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) political grouping. The JVP later broke with the SLFP and left the government, but often supported it from outside. Presidential elections were held in November 2005, with Mahinda Rajapaksa becoming President, and Ratnasiri Wickramanayake becoming Prime Minister. Rajapaksas UPFA coalition won in the April 2010 parliamentary elections, where it captured 144 out of 225 seats possible.
United National Front
In the April 2010 parliamentary elections, the United National Front, centered on the United National Party, won 60 out of 225 seats. The "United National Front" (UNF) banner that was used during the elections which took place in December 2001. In the April 2004 parliamentary elections, UNP allies in its "United National Front" (UNF) included the tea estate Tamil Ceylon Worker's Congress (CWC) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).
Tamil National Alliance
In the April 2010 parliamentary elections, the Tamil National Alliance won 14 out of 225 seats. Tamil parties generally were uncomfortable with the prospect of supporting the reelection of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and were hesitant to support General Sarath Fonseka, who many Tamils viewed with suspicion after his service as Army Chief during the war against the LTTE. The Ilangai Thamil Arasu Kachchi, Tamil United Liberation Front, TELO, PLOTTE, and EPRLF came under the umbrella of the TNA and were engaged in political activities.
Democratic National Alliance
In the April 2010 parliamentary elections, the Democratic National Alliance, in which the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) is the largest partner, won 7 out of 225 seats. Former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka became Democratic National Alliance (DNA) leader.

Major Political Parties - 2010 Election

Ceylon Workers' Congress
The tea estate Tamil Ceylon Worker's Congress (CWC) is a minority-oriented party that enjoyed the support of the Indian Tamils and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in the late 1980s. The CWC has traditionally liked to be on the winning side, so that its leader, A. Thondaman, can maintain control of the ministry of plantations. This portfolio has been held by the CWC through several governments, including by Thondaman's grandfather, the CWC founder. The CWC had, with only rare exception, traditionally supported the opposition United National Party (UNP). On 05 September 2004 Arumugan Thondaman, head of the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), announced that his party's eight MPs would support the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. In the 1990s the CWC, with its solid voter base of Indian "hill" Tamils on tea estates in Nuwara Eliya and Badulla, was the third largest party and thus the uncontested "kingmaker" in a political landscape dominated by the two national giants, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) and the UNP. By 2004, however, in the reconfiguration of political alliances and the proliferation of new parties, the CWC's ranking in the current Parliament had slipped to an unimpressive seventh place.
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP -- People's Liberation Front)
The hard left Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna began as an insurgent extremist political group founded in the late 1960s by Rohana Wijeweera. A Maoist and primarily rural Sinhalese youth movement based in southern Sri Lanka, it initially sympathized with the "oppressed" of both the Tamil and Sinhalese communities, but by the early 1980s, became increasingly a Sinhalese nationalist organization opposing any compromise with the Tamil insurgency. The vicissitudes of the peace process had little practical impact on the JVP's southern vote base, and the party can score cheap political points by appealing to this constituency's romanticized nationalist notions without having to deal with the fall-out.

In the new century it was Sri Lanka's main Sinhalese chauvinist anti-peace track political party, supported by Buddhist monks from the National Bhikku Front. Some claim that the JVP is truly democratic; that it has accepted that the free market will prevail in Sri Lanka (though the JVP party leader has stated that his party embraced the Cuban model); it has agreed to a federal solution to Sri Lanka (despite numerous public comments by JVP leaders that they favor a unitary state with an unspecified amount of devolution); and that it was less inclined to violence and corruption than the UNP (though the JVP had twice carried out armed insurrections in Sri Lanka; and the JVP might be less corrupt but that could be because it had never held power).

The JVP, a nationalist party opposed to negotiations with the LTTE and any political solution which contains federalism and / or devolution, has a strong base in the south and is actively building up support in the rest of the country, particularly, the north central province and conflict affected Trincomalee district. The JVP opposes any significant devolution of authority to provincial government and it is often able to outbid the SLFP in responding to Sinhalese fears, pushing the government to take a harder line. The leftist JVP has always been strongly anti-US, accusing the US routinely in public of being the "arch-imperialist.

Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU)
The Sinhala nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya fielded 286 Buddhist priests led by Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera to contest the 02 April 2004, General Election under the "Hak Gediya" (Conch) as its symbol. A public lecture on western conspiracies and on how the country can face them was organized by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in Colombo in March 2012. A large number of people including monks, artists and professionals attended it.
Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)
first major non-Marxist left-of- center political party to oppose the UNP; founded in July 1951 when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike's left-of-center bloc split with D.S. Senanayake and seceded to form the SLFP. The SLFP, the main party in the People's Alliance (PA) coalition, returned to power in 1994 for the first time in 17 years.
United National Party
conservative, umbrella party founded by Don Stephen Senanayake in 1946 as a partnership of many disparate groups--including the Ceylon National Congress, the Sinhala Maha Sabha, and the Muslim League. Political party in power in Sri Lanka for ten years beginning in February 1948 when the new constitution went into effect, and again from 1977 to 1988; nickname is "uncle-nephew party" because of kinship ties among the party's top leadership. In December 2001, the UNP assumed power, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. By 2008 the main opposition United National Party (UNP) continued to search for a coherent strategy to challenge the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led government after its failed attempt to bring down the government in December 2007 during the budget vote.

Other Political Formations [not all currently active]

All Ceylon Tamil Congress
also known as the Tamil Congress. Founded in 1944 to champion the cause of the Tamils against Sinhalese Buddhist domination. A faction broke away in 1949 to form the more aggressive Tamil Federal Party.
Ceylon Equal Society Party (Lanka Sama Samaja Party--LSSP)
Trotskyite-oriented party founded in 1935. Though touted as the world's only successful Trotskyite party, in recent years the LSSP has been considered politically spent.
Ceylon Indian Congress
founded in 1939. Political group representing Indian Tamils that sought to revive Buddhism.
Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL)
began as a Stalinist faction of the LSSP, but was later expelled and founded as a separate party in 1943, remaining faithful to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (DJV)
Patriotic Liberation Organization--emerged in 1987 as a splinter group of the JVP.
Eelam National Liberation Front (ENLF)
a united front organization formed in March 1985 by the LTTE, EPRLF, TELO, and EROS, which became largely inoperative by mid-1986 when LTTE quit, although the other groups sought to form a front without LTTE participation.
Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF)
a guerrilla group that emerged in the early 1980s, part of the ENLF.
Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS)
militant Tamil guerrilla group that emerged in the early 1980s, part of the ENLF.
Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP)
The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was founded in 1935 and remained in the late 1980s one of the very few Marxist-Leninist parties in the world to associate itself with the revolutionary doctrines of Leon Trotsky. This connection made it attractive to independent-minded Marxists who resented ideological subservience to Moscow and who aspired to adapt Marxism to Sri Lankan conditions. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the LSSP functioned as the primary opposition party, but its fortunes declined after the emergence of the non-Marxist SLFP. Like the SLPP, the LSSP joined with the ruling UNP in the mid-1980s to support a negotiated settlement with Tamil militants but in 1988 did not have members in Parliament. The New Equal Society Party (Nava Sama Samaja Party--NSSP) was in 1987 a breakaway faction of the LSSP.
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
strongest of Tamil separatist groups, founded in 1972 when Tamil youth espousing a Marxist ideology and an independent Tamil state established a group called the Tamil New Tigers; name changed in 1976. Competitors include People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam, Tamil Eelam Liberation Army, and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization. Membership generally drawn from the Karava or fisherman caste. By late 1986 LTTE had eliminated TELO and established itself as the dominant spokesman of the Tamil insurgency.
New Equal Society Party (Nava Sama Samaja Party--NSSP)
a breakaway faction of the LSSP.
People's Democratic Party (PDP--Mahajana Prajathanthra)
Sinhalese, founded in 1977 by six members of the SLFP.
People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE, also PLOT)
insurgent political group with large percentage of members belonging to elite Vellala caste; a rival of the LTTE, from whom it broke away in 1981 claiming a purer form of Marxist orthodoxy.
People's United Front (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna--MEP)
political party founded by Dinesh P.R. Gunawardene in 1955 that has attracted Sinhalese support with its appeals to militant Buddhist and Sinhala chauvinist sentiments. Originally opposed to the UNP, it is basically an SLFP-Marxist coalition.
Sinhala Maha Sabha
Great Council of the Sinhalese. It was founded in 1937 to represent the interest of Sinhala-language speakers in the Ceylon National Congress and to mobilize popular support for the liberation of the country from foreign rule.
Sri Lanka People's Party (Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya--SLPP)
political party formed in 1984 by a daughter of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Chandrika Kumaratunge, and her husband Vijay Kumaratunge, who claimed that the original SLFP, under the leadership of Bandaranaike's son, Anura, was excessively right wing and had become an instrument of the Jayewardene government.
Tamil Eelam Army (TEA)
insurgent group.
Tamil Eelam Liberation Army (TELA)
insurgent group.
Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO)
guerrilla group decimated in 1986 by repeated LTTE attacks.
Tamil Federal Party
also known as the Federal Party. Formally established in December 1949. Competitor of the more conciliatory Tamil Congress, also known as the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, the party desired a federal system of government and the right to political autonomy--an independent Tamil state. Renamed the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1971.
Tamil New Tigers
guerrilla group, formed in 1972, that abandoned the political process and geared itself for violence. The New Tigers espoused Marxist ideology and claimed to represent the oppressed of all ethnic groups despite its obvious ethnic affiliation; see also LTTE.
Tamil Tigers
Tamil separatist underground of rival and sometimes violently hostile groups based in the Northern and Eastern provinces and known collectively as Tamil Tigers.
Tamil United Front
founded in May 1972 as a reaction against the 1972 constitution, a coalition of Tamil interest groups and legal parties including the Tamil Congress and the Federal Party; united by the goal of Tamil autonomy and espousing nonviolent means, called the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976. Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF)--political party spawned by the Tamil United Front.
Three Stars
insurgent Tamil coalition.
United Front (Samagi Peramuna)
three-party political coalition (LSSP, CPSL, and SLFP), formed in 1968 by Sirimavo Bandaranaike to prepare for the 1970 general election and to oppose the UNP.

Party Performance in General Elections, 1947-77

(showing percentage of popular vote and number of seats won)
19471952 1956March 1960July 196019651970 1977
PartyVotes WonNo. of SeatsVotes WonNo. of SeatsVotes WonNo. of Seats Votes WonNo. of SeatsVotes WonNo. of SeatsVotes WonNo. of SeatsVotes WonNo. of SeatsVotes WonNo. of Seats
TOTAL100.095100.095100.095100.0151100.0151100.0151100.0151100.01- 68

-- Means did not particpate.
UNP - United National Party.
SLFP - Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
LSSP - Lanka Sama Samaja Party.
Includes both factions of LSSP, which ran separately in 1947.
CP - Communist Party of Sri Lanka.
MEP - Mahajana Eksath Peramuna.
TC - Tamil Congress. With FP, formed the TULF to contest the 1977 election.
FP - Federal Party. With TC, formed the TULF to contest the 1977 election.
CIC - Ceylon Indian Congress.
TULF - Tamil United Liberation Front.
Ind. - Independents.

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Page last modified: 05-05-2012 19:19:19 ZULU