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The Leftist Movement in Sri Lanka:

The contest for Negombo in 1947 parliamentary elections

When the Soulbery Constitution was introduced, the LSSP and the BLPI agitated for a general election accusing that the State Council for which the members were elected in 1936 was outdated. By this time the Communist Party which backed the war effort of the Government joined the Leftist camp.

In 1946 D.S. Senanayake formed the UNP in a hurry to face the general election. It was a combination of National Congress, Sinhala Maha Sabha led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and few other Tamils and Muslims of standing.

Santiago Fernando Edmund Samarakkody

The 1947 elections under the Soulbury Constitution were held for the first time according to the political party system. The UNP put forward 98 candidates, LSSP 28, Communist Party 13 and the BLPI 10.

The Tamil Congress contested some seats in Northern and Eastern provinces and the Ceylon Indian Congress contested some seats in the plantations. There were a large number of independents in the fray. The UNP considered some electorates as `open seats’ and nominated several for them.

The UNP pledged to obtain independence without shedding a drop of blood. It condemned Marxist parties as destructive and raised the religious issue against them. It carried a poster campaign all over the country indicating, “Let us save the religion from the Samsamajist fire.”

The Leftist parties banded the UNP as a reactionary force and emphasised that the burning problems of people could be solved only with a socialist program. Although there was a no-contest pact between the LSSP and the BLPI, both the parties clashed with the CP in a few electorates.

There was a three-cornered contest for the Negombo seat. The sitting member for Negombo in the State Council, H. de Z. Siriwardena was the UNP candidate. Santiago Fernando was the LSSP nominee.

A.L.J. Croos Rajchandra contested as an independent. At the beginning the Catholic Church backed Rajchandra who was the President of the Catholic Union, the most powerful Catholic lay organisation.

However when it realised that the poor in Negombo were rallying round the LSSP candidate it got alarmed and began to support the only Buddhist candidate, H.de Z Siriwardena of the UNP.

The contest for the Negombo seat was the cynosure of all Catholics in Sri Lanka. Negombo was a Catholic fortress and it was the electorate that had the highest percentage of Catholics. Besides, the LSSP candidate Santiago Fernando was a person who was expelled from the position of teacher of a Catholic school for his Leftist leanings. As such the Catholic Church joined hands with the rich and powerful in Negombo to defeat him.

The reactionary forces used all the tactics against Santiago Fernando. The Catholic clergy in their sermons from the pulpit in churches instructed devotees not to vote for Santiago. All the Catholic organisations too were deployed against him. The Catholic Church branded the LSSP as an anti-religious organisation.

The other two candidates except for Santiago Fernando were lawyers A.L.J. Croos Rajchandra was an advocate and H.de Z. Siriwardena was a proctor. Santiago Fernando was only a Sinhala teacher.

The reactionary elements questioned whether the English knowledge of Santiago Fernando would be sufficient enough to participate in the proceedings in Parliament.

Santiago Fernando replied that he has been a member of the Negombo Urban Council for two consecutive terms and his knowledge of English would be more than sufficient to function as a MP as well.

At that time Santiago Fernando had proposed a resolution in the Negombo UC demanding Central College for Negombo. His opponents made use of this too as a weapon against Santiago Fernando.

They distributed a pamphlet in Negombo saying that Santiago Fernando has been clamouring for a Central School in Negombo amidst all the Catholic schools was a traitor to the religion. Santiago Fernando too issued a pamphlet in reply pointing out that all the superior Catholic schools in Negombo were meant only for the rich and a Central College would benefit the poor Catholic children.

There were also many pamphlets in Negombo degrading the poor candidate Santiago Fernando.An English version of a verse reads thus:”Let us take a cart - And tie Santiago the Bull to it, Dabarera would drive it - And Siriwardena will ride in it.’(A.L.J. Croos Rajchandra was popularly known in Negombo by his former surname Dabarera)

When Santigao Fernando became a villain for all the rich and reactionary elements, he became more and more popular among the poor voters. Swabasha teachers, drivers, tailors and barbers were among the commoners who played a prominent role in the campaign of Santiago Fernando.

The election for the Negombo seat was held on September 16, 1947. At that time symbols were not allotted according to the parties. The symbol of H.de Z. Siriwardena was butterfly and Santiago Fernando got elephant. Star was the symbol of A.L.J. Croos Rajchandra.

On the election day green flags with butterfly symbol was prominent all over Negombo, and there was a considerable amount of blue flags with star symbol. However, the few red flags with the elephant symbol found here but they were more striking.

When Santiago visited the polling booths on the election day in a car provided by his supporters, many poor voters awaiting for his arrival at the polling booths with great enthusiasm applauded with joy to welcome him. In some places poor voters were seen staging a procession with a red banner ahead of them in support of him. The general consensus was that Santiago Fernando would win the seat.

Later however the things took a different turn. At that time the candidates provided transport for voters. Santiago Fernando who was a poor and helpless guy without proper employment at the time could not afford to provide vehicles for the purpose.

So he surreptitiously instructed voters to go in cars provided by the opponents and vote for him. By noon there was suspicion about the role of the drivers of cars provided by his main opponent, and they were stopped from transporting voters. As a result there was a low poll in the Negombo electorate and only 43% had exercised the vote. There was also some well organised impersonation.

Besides it was later revealed that the Leftist BLPI had helped the UNP candidate on the sly. So at the end of a keenly fought election, the LSSP candidate Santiago Fernando lost the Negombo seat to the UNP rival H.de Z. Siriwardena by a narrow margin of 956 votes.This is how the book `History of Elections in Sri Lanka’ by S. Piyasena in Sinhala describes that election for Negombo.

“By 1947 the election rivalry according to the Party system had reached Negombo as well. The main rival of the UNP candidates in Negombo, H.de Z. Siriwardena was a Samasamajist. He was none other than Santiago Fernando, an enthusiastic member of the LSSP, almost from its inception, prolific writer who wrote at length to the Leftist journals on the Catholic Church and Marxism and bold and upright teacher popularly known as Santhi Gurunnanse.

“The UNP expected an easy victory in Negombo, the Catholic stronghold as the Catholics were believed to be against the Marxist LSSP. But soon they found that it was not so easy going as the fisherfolk began to rally round Santiago saying “Poor voters in Negombo would vote for Poor Santhi Gurunnanse Ultimately, UNP could win Negombo only by a slender Margin of 956 votes.”

Although Santiago Fernando lost the seat by a slender majority it was evident that LSSP had made headway in Negombo. The power struggle in Negombo was an inspiration for many Catholics in Catholic strongholds like Ja-ela and Nattandiya to vote against the UNP. In some other electorates like Moratuwa, Panadura, Kalutara, Colombo and Avissawella where there was a considerable Catholic population many Catholics backed the Leftist parties.

According to the Soulbury Constitution for the first Senate of 15 members were appointed by the Governor and 15 were elected by the members of the House of Representatives. There was a move to elect Santiago Fernando who lost Negombo by a narrow margin from the LSSp and Edmund Samarkkody who contested D.S. Senanayake from the BLPI to the Senate. But as the two parties made a policy decision not to elect defeated candidates to the Senate, Santiago Fernando missed a chance of entering the Senate as well.

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