Shalini Senanayake –
Political parties were not recognized in order to contest elections at the introduction of universal suffrage under the Donoughmore Constitution but political groupings were visible within the political space and the electoral mechanism. Four significant political groupings in the first ever election to the State Council were Labour Party, Ceylon National Congress, Unionists and the Liberal League under the leadership of E.W.Perera. (Lion of Kotte)
First Phase of Liberalism
Liberal League contested in Colombo Central,(T.B.Jayah),Colombo North(R.Saravanamuttu-won), Dumbara(J.A.Halangoda),Gampola(T.B.Panabokke- won),Hatton (P.Sundaram- won),Horana(E.W.Perera-won),Kandy(F.A.Senevirathne),Kalutara(C.Batuwanthdawe -won) ,Katugampola( R.S.Tennekoon- won),Mannar-Mulativu(G.G.Ponnambalam),Matale(W.T.B.Karalliyadda –won),Matara(J.H.P.Wijemanne )Narammala( G.E.Madawala- won),Nuwaraeliya(E.W.Abeygoonasekara –won)Puttalam(F.C.S.Storer), Ruwanwella(J.H.Meedeniya- won),Weligama(D.Wanigasekeara-won) and was looked as a formidable force in the beginning of the Donoughmore period. However as the Donoughmore system did not allow the development of political parties and for various other reasons, Liberal League gradually disappeared by 1936. Ceylon National Congress remained as the major force in politics in the third decade of the 20th century.
There is no doubt that early liberals had been influenced by the Liberal Party of the United Kingdom (UK) but in the 1930’s the Liberal Party of UK was diminishing as a major political contender as a result of a major split and two major groups of liberals joined the Conservative Party and newly formed Labour Party and thus ending the dominance of the Liberal Party. Only in 2010 British Liberals were able to enter the government almost after 80 years.
Second Phase of Liberalism
Second phase of liberal politics began in Sri Lanka with the formation of the Liberal party on the 19th of January in 1987 which was later registered under the Election Commissioner in 1988. The forerunner to the party was Council of Liberal Democracy that was organized by a group of upper middle class educated youths to agitate against authoritarian tendencies of the J.R.Jayawardene government manifested in the ill famous referendum to extend the duration of the parliament that was elected in 1977.
Founder leader of the Liberal Party was Dr Chanaka Amaratinga a young intellectual who had completed his doctorate from the Oxford University. Liberal Party constitution categorically states that the party stands for the ideology of liberalism as opposed to populism, socialism and all types of nationalism. Liberals believe that the task of the state is to widen individual freedom that has a direct impact on development.
Party under Chanaka
During the 25 years the Liberal Party came under three leaders. Dr Chanaka Amaratunga was the undisputed leader of the party until his untimely death in 1996. The nine years records the interaction of the party in various political issues with special emphasis on constitutional reforms. It had limited electoral success at the first ever provincial council election in 1988.At the Gampaha district owing to the reason that Sri Lanka Freedom Party did not contest the election the Liberal Party won two seats. Chanaka’s overall strategy was to enter the parliament through an alliance against Mr.J.R. Jayawardene regime that worsened the national question as well as the principles of democracy. Though the party played a vital role with late Mr.Kumar Ponnambalam in drafting the election manifesto of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandranaike in 1989, United National Party once again emerged the victorious party. Though Chanaka was a national list candidate under SLFP , there was no opportunity to be elected. With change in leadership of the United National Party in 1989 Liberal Party was leaning towards UNP in order to have an alliance and this came to end with the tragic death of Mr R. Premadasa. After the demise of Mr.R.Premadasa then leaders, Mr.D.B.Wijetunga and Mr.Ranil Wickramasinghe did not tolerate such an alliance with the Liberal Party.
In 1994 general election Liberal Party formed an official alliance with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress under the leadership of late Mr A.H.M.Ashroff and to his credit he wanted to keep the promises alive.However Mrs Chandrika Kumaratunga was determined not get Chanaka in and also a segment of the Muslim Congress high command was also opposing Chanaka’s entrance into parliament and subsequently Mr. Asitha Perera, Senior Vice President of the Liberal Party was nominated as first ever Liberal Party member of parliament through the national list of the Muslim Congress. In the 1994 presidential election Liberal party decided to support UNP candidate Gamini Dissanayake.
Liberal Party leader was instrumentalin drafting Dissanayake’s manifesto. Assasination of Dissanayake by the LTTE ended up the loose alliance with Gamini Dissanayake.Chanaka‘s tragic death in 1996 ended the first phase of the Liberal Party. Mrs. Swarna Amaratunga , Chanaka’s mother joined the party and she now holds the post of president.
Rajiva as leader
In 1996 after Chanaka’s demise, the national committee of the Liberal Party elected Dr Rajiva Wijesinha, President of the party as the acting leader unanimously. In 1997 the national congress endorsed the leadership of Rajiva Wijesinha. Under his leadership it was decided that the party should outreach and get many organizers from the outstations. As a result of this decision Liberal Party wanted to contest the 1999 Presidential election and Rajiva was the candidate and also contested the 2000 general election in almost all districts. All subsequent elections were contested by the party at selected districts. Worth to mention is Rathnapura Municipal election in 2002. During the period of Rajiva’s tenure party got electoral successes in Dompe(PS), Kobeigane(PS) and Gampaha (MC). The party in 2005 was to take a stand on the presidential election and was of the opinion that UNP was unable to face the challenge posed by LTTE and decided to support the new candidate of the SLFP Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse. The party was involved in the UPFA campaign through Mr. Kamal Nissanka then the Secretary General.
Kamal leads the party
After 10 years in leadership Rajiva opted to step down and the party unanimously decided to appoint Mr. Kamal Nissanka , a graduate from the University of Peradeniya and an Attorney- at- Law as the third leader of the party.
Under Mr. Nissanka’s leadership party was able to maintain very good rapport with SLFP and UPFA. in 2010 he was able to negotiate with SLFP and UPFA to get a national list seat for the party and party decided to propose Rajiva Wijesinha as its nominee and informed the Secretary General of UPFA, Mr.Susil Premajayntha. During the period concerned Liberal Party was offered the chairmanship of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) composed of 12 Asian political parties. During this period international image of the party was grown. Under Mr. Nissanka‘s tenure party’s organizational structure was also developed and it has now a workers union, youth wing and women’s wing. Party has increased the membership of the national committee, the highest decision making body up to 23 members.
In the last congress of the party held on the 18th of December 2011, party unanimously elected Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP as the leader considering his presence in the parliament and in order to promote the party’s national image. Mr. Nissanka continues to serve as the secretary general and the de facto national organizer of the Liberal Party. Liberal Party has now decided to organize the party in more positive manner as the policies of some major parties are outdated.