30 May, 2023


Random Thoughts On The Politics In Sri Lanka After 2004

By Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri

Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri

Political unification of the Sinhala-Buddhist South and the decline of the two-party system: Some Random Thoughts on the Politics in Sri Lanka after 2004


Politics of Sir Lanka is undergoing serious changes in the last decade. These changes have shaken the very foundations of the major pillars of the post-colonial hegemonic edifice of Sri Lanka. Two of such pillars are the two-party equilibrium system and the North-South equilibrium system. The objective of this presentation is to map the post-colonial political landscape in Sri Lanka in relation to these two equilibrium systems and shed some light on the changes that are taking place in these two systems.

Emergence and development of the two-party equilibrium system

There was no well-developed party system at the time of the transfer of state power from the British colonial rulers to the indigenous elite in 1948. While the influence of the two organized left wing parties, i.e. the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP) restricted only to certain areas, the United National party (UNP) was only a makeshift arrangement that was made to face the 1947 general election. The number of independent candidates that were contested and won the 1947 election bear witness for the reality where the political allegiance of the voting public still remained outside political parties.

This situation began to change since 1956 with two structural changes. Firstly, two major Sinhala-Buddhist parties, namely Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the UNP consolidated in the Sinhala-Buddhist south as two main electoral rivals. I call these two parties ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ as they rely mainly on the support of the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency for their electoral success. From 1956 to 1977 these two parties mostly with other minor parties whom they formed electoral alliance with managed to defeat each other in successive elections.

Secondly, two left parties which had evolved since 1930s as decisive force in Sri Lankan politics began to lose its grip on electoral process. As individual political parties, their impact was entirely disappeared after 1977. They could remain in electoral politics after 1977, even with the introduction of the proportional representation, a system that is much favorable for political parties with lesser voter-attraction, only through alliances first with the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), the party that managed to keep some voter-attraction immediately after the death of its charismatic leader, Vijaya Kumaratunga,and then with the SLFP.

After 1994 sees the metamorphosis of the Peoples’ Liberation Front (JVP), which had devised its strategy to capture state power through organized armed insurgencies, into an electoral party. In this period the sudden growth of its voter attraction in the Sinhala-Buddhist South made one believe that it is emerging as a threatening force for the two-party equilibrium system.

North-South equilibrium system

Tamil North and Sinhala-Buddhist South emerged as two separate politico-ideological entities since the latter part of the nineteenth century, the period that began the modern political sphere.  In the South, the cultural revival started in the mid-nineteenth century transformed itself into a nationalist politico-ideological formation which defined its ‘self’ in opposition to ‘the non-Sinhala-Buddhist other’ including Tamils. Although there emerged indigenous elite political entity, Ceylon National Congress (CNC), in line with the powerful Indian National Congress, bringing together both Sinhala and Tamil elites, this alliance did not last long as Tamil elite left the CNC over the issue of distribution of limited spaces available for locals in the legislative council in the 1920s.

At the time of the transfer of power, these two politico-ideological centers were well consolidated as separate entities. Unlike in India, however, where two similar historically evolved politico-ideological entities were transformed in two sovereign states, i.e. India and Pakistan, transfer of the power in Sri Lanka took the form of a single and unitary political entity, even in defiance of the so-called 50-50 demand that came from the Tamil political elite, as an alliance between Sinhala and Tamil political elite was forged in order to form a government following the 1947 general election. This alliance was however proved to be ineffective in the long run as Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist forces gained control in the government with the election victory of Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) in 1956.

With the increasing Sinhala-Buddhicization of the state after 1956, in which certain measures by the state such as official language act of 1957, certain measures taken in the realm of university admission and allocation of state sector jobs, and land colonization scheme in the North and the East were viewed by the Tamil masses, especially those in the North and the East as calculated measures against them. These governmental measures were supplemented by ethnic violence against Tamil masses by Sinhalese in creating further negative image in the mind of Tamil masses. This situation strengthened the grip of Tamil nationalist political elite over Tamil masses and augmented the demand of the former for a regional autonomy for the North and the East.

Amidst this ethno-based bifurcation of post-colonial political landscape in the Sri Lanka, the top layer of the political elite of the south and its think tank were very well aware of the gravity of the problem. Therefore, there was a continuous engagement between the Tamil nationalist elite and top layer of the governing elite, even at times of high tension, although there was no firm political will in the latter to come to a long-lasting agreement by defiance of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist pressure. Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact of 1958, Dudley-Chelvanayagam pact of 1967, enactment of the 13th amendment to the constitution following the Indo-Lanka accord, election manifesto of the Democratic People’s Alliance headed by Sirima Bandaranaike for the 1988 presidential election, the package of political solution of 1995 by the Chandrika Kumaratunga government and finally RanilPrabha agreement of 2002 were clear instances for the flexibility shown by the top layer of the political elite of the south in this connection.

This flexibility was enabled by two factors. On one hand there was a significant distance between the hard-core of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and the top layer of the political elite of the south. On the other hand, there was a pragmatic need for the political elite of the south to be flexible on the demands of the Tamil nationalism, and for those of the other minority groups such as Muslims. As the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency was sharply divided between two political camps headed by two major Sinhala-Buddhist parties, the support of the more unified constituencies of the minorities were essential for each of the two camps to ensure significant upper hand over its rival at elections and post-election efforts to form governments.

Post-2004 reconstitution of the politics of the Sinhala-Buddhist South

The election victory of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) marked the end of these two equilibrium systems that shaped the post-colonial political landscape. Two important structural changes occurred in the politics of the Sinhala-Buddhist south with the election victory of the UPFA in 2004 and, especially, 2005.

Firstly there was a gradual unification of the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency around the UPFA. This unification occurs at the expense of both the UNP and the JVP. The recoverability shown by the UNP after the major electoral setback in 1956 is not repeated after the setback marked by not-so-severe election defeat at the 2004 general election. Since then there is a gradual decline of the voter attraction for the UNP among the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency.

There is also a steep decline of the voter attraction to the JVP in the Sinhala-Buddhist south. Massive increase of the voter base of the JVP in the Sinhala-Buddhist south began to crumble since the JVP left the UPFA.

It is not only the UNP and the JVP, whose existence are challenged in this new context, but also SLFP situation is also no better. When the election results of the Northwestern provincial council is closely observed, this becomes clear. Candidates who received higher preferential votes are not SLFP’s party based candidates. But those who can be identifies as post-political party politicians. One has to look at the poor performance of the former chief minister who is a party man. It is also interesting to note the election results of Colombo district in the last general election where a number of post-political-party politicians such as Wimal Weerawansa, Duminda Silva, Champika Ranawaka, Dinesh Gunawardana, Tilanga Sumathipala, topped the list at the expense of party-based candidates.

In this sense the UPFA is not an alliance of various political parties in the traditional sense, but a ‘Post-Political-Party formation’.

Secondly, the tension between the top layer of the governing elite and the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist discourse is radically disappeared since Mahinda Rajapaksha won the presidential election in 2005. The alliance that emerged between the Rajapaksha leadership and all major exponents of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist discourse still remain well intact. This unbroken alliance has certainly cemented the North-South polarization.

With the unification of the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency in a manner that the UPFA can enjoy the monopoly of voter attraction, there is no serious need for it to look for non-Sinhala-Buddhist constituencies to gain the control over the governing process.

In conclusion, I propose that the changes that are marked by the UPFA victory in 2004 and 2005 have serious implications for the political future of Sri Lanka. These changes certainly undermined the very foundation of the post-colonial political edifice of Sri Lanka and therefore threatening to the political unity that was built upon the fragile consensus between diverse constituencies.

*NB. This is written hurriedly to present as the chairman’s address at the panel on Post Colonial politics of the annual research sessions of the faculty of humanities and social sciences of the University of Ruhuna, held 22nd October 2013. Critical comments are welcome to develop this further.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Dr. Devasiri,

    Your analysis is quite plausible. The NPC elections have also shown a consolidation of ‘non-party’ Tamil elements under the umbrella of the TNA- Sumanthiran, Vigneswaran and many of the newly elected members. Is this going to be a Sinhala-Buddhist vs Tamils polarization within a national (united Sri lanka) context? Would this polarization lead to further confrontations or a rapproachement? Would this polarization also lead to a majority (Sinhala-Buddhist) vs ‘Other’ minorities polarization? What would be the role of non-Buddhist Sinhalese, the Muslims and the Hill Country Tamils, in the emerging equation? How will these factors play out?

    Interesting times, boding much hope or more troubles ahead. The manner in which the TNA trio- Sambanthan, Sumanthiran and Vigneswaran-
    direct the TNA, leading to a rapproachement with the the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, a consolidation of the minorities under a ‘Minorities’ umbrella and the response of the UPFA formation to the
    ‘NEW’ TNA, would determine where we a headed as a nation.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 0

    Dr. Rajasingham. Dont waste time reading these type of Articles, this land will be seperate soon, you see soon that MR will come to Public will say ” Lets Give them and who is going to live there”? a nice talk and sign off. CM Vig will be president soon and I wish that will happen. Hope CM Vig will solve the Muslim issue soon as possible then.

    • 0

      Ranjth Devasiri looks like a Sinhala – Christian. SO, it is good. It says very well with the articles he is writing.

    • 0

      You identify yourself as “I am Srilnkan”.And then you go on to say that this land will be separated soon.You are a defeated Tamil terrorist.Keep on day/night dreaming.Enjoy yourself!

      • 0

        Max you Moron,

        You cannot defeat Tamils and 3000 year Tamil History Heritage.
        Your terrorist master MR tried but it was in vain.
        This time last year I thought MR had succeded but after the elections to the Northern Assembly MR has been stopped. I am reliably told that he is seething with anger and finally before we finally pull the plugs he may try something terrible on the Tamils like in East Pakistan.

    • 0

      I am [not] Sri Lankan Muslim bugger is a pipe dreaming jihadi.

  • 0

    All the signs of a Tamil Nation being re-born has been created unwittingly by this Regimes continued undemocratic activities. If it is the true wish of the tamils, so be it.

  • 0

    Dr Devasiri we will look after politics. Look after corruptive University system. How professors are appointed. No PhDs from good Universities and not any single publications in ISI level journal. Fight to correct that.

  • 0

    Ranjith Devasiri is [Edited out]

  • 0

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy

  • 0

    It is apparent that most of the Sinhala Buddhist people have united today under the leadership of the UPFA. Most of these people are ordinary people. The big question is have their day to day problems in respect of education of their children, healthcare,three square meals per day, avenues of employment etc. been solved by this achieved ‘unity’? The ‘other’ have to be constantly shown as the devils blocking their path of progress! Will such a strategy work indefinitely?

    Some people can be fooled for all time and all people can be fooled for some time. But……….

    Sengodan. M

  • 0

    Dr Dewasiri has put the multi-facted reality in words for all to see the whole picture easily and clearly. The next step ……

  • 0

    Tamil Sinhala polarization is an inevitable consequence of the policies adopted by successive Sinhala majoritarian administrations which held the seat of power following independence from the British in 1948.
    The recent NPC elections results following the thirty year old war is an excellent indicator of that polarization.But despite such polarization the basic problems common to both the majority and the minority communities are the same food,shelter,health,employment, schooling,cost of living etc.,etc.
    So much so the strategy of divide and rule could work for some time but not all times.
    There has to be some areas of common ground where even the people of different communities living in a limited space such as this island have to one day come together on certain common issues that confront them.Once a via media can be found on these, then it is possible to find a lasting agreement on other vexed issues.It may take time,but there is no other way out and that is where negotiating skills matter.

  • 0

    Good attempt to shed light on Post-colonial politics from a fresh perspective. However, as I see, there is an important element in your analysis , that needs further analytical development. When you mark the emergence of Post-political party scenario ,you are marking a big shift , I would call it even a paradigm shift in politics. So , to my mind ,it would be important to understand underlying factors of this shift; Is it related to the entry of Executive presidency / or Neo-liberal stance , or to both?
    I’ve been calling the contemporary domain of power politics as a ‘Political Industry’; I see all the characteristics and attributes of an industry in our politics. We can safely call main parties as ‘companies’ with big bosses; The parliament is no more the traditional space where ‘acts’ were produced by representatives of people in some engagement and decisions were made. Now we see sales-reps gather inside the parliament in the guise of MPs and they come just to raise hands/promote products of the company which are being made somewhere else. they also at another level become share holders/ business partners who are obliged to invest substantial monies , so it is by definition Capital (and others invest in them !) with an aim to make profit. But before they can enter into the business they must pay a big advance/ or rather tribute to the company boss just to get the ‘ticket'(that shows the feudal face of this unique system )

  • 0

    The Post – Independence political Philosophy in Sri Lanka has been a very simple one

    Salvation is in the Cross
    (More crosses the merrier)
    – Please the majority community to get into power
    – Cater to their whims and fancies to stay in power
    Leave the rest in the hand of God

    Now please… don’t call me all names. I am a Sinhala Buddhist

  • 0

    The hand over of governance of Sri Lanka to the indigenous political elite meant also the handing over of power to the anglophiles and the educated elite. Note that, the educated elite was created to serve the ruling class- Dutch, Portuguese and the British.
    Their (the indigenous elite)loyalties and life styles reflected that of the occupiers, so as to say even the reactionaries measured their concepts using the British/western benchmarks as the laws and the form of government was essentially based on the Westminster model.
    JVP movements was based on the Russian thinkers
    Therefore nothing reflected the fundamental Buddhist thoughts.
    It’s is wrong to to identify or allow the thought to manifest in our minds that being a Buddhist Sinhala also automatically means to be an upholder of pure Buddhist values, to be a good Buddhist is to follow Buddhist principles.
    Sri Lanka is undoubtedly the land of the Yakshas, Nagas and now that of the Sinhalas (mixture of the Hela tribes and settlers from all parts of India)the Sinhala culture and religion is based on Buddhism. Sri Lanka has remained a unique and a politically separate entity from India.
    Where the foreign usurpers fail to understand is that neither the any of the former occupying powers nor the modern Indians drive the pulse of Lanka only the faith and values of the majority, who happened to be Buddhists alone drive the pulse of Lanka.
    What India fails to understand is that. Leaving out the MODERN DAY Tamils who expresses their longing to belong to their Tamil Nadu tribe not governed by the deeds of the wheel turning kings. The sign of the Indian flag and the emblem of our steadfast Emperor Asoka’s,who saw the renascence of India is the chakra.
    Lanka represent what India would look like when it is free of communal ism and has lost unique racial features on India’s many tribes.
    So when India raises issues with Sri Lanka’s attempt to protect its unique identity, it’s also questioning its own future identity.
    So if India feels that Sri Lanka has no place place among-st the league of nations as an undivided political entity now, then in the future India it self will cease to exist as a unity but would be just a broken collection of states divided by local tribal identities.
    India also need to consider that this resplendent island ;much smaller than India; has overcome the Dutch, Portuguese and the British (world superpowers at that time).
    The race of the Sinhala(future look of India)are still intact, that is a proof of the longevity of our race and the glue of our culture. Other documentary proofs are unnecessary to prove our wright to this island.
    A much younger state would have now disappeared from humanity. Long live the Sinhalas let the Sinhalas and the Tamils absorb the true essence of the resplendent teaching of the Buddha and create a Lanka that will spurn the renaissance of Asia.
    Lankas military must be in readiness to tackle any situation in this turbulent times.

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