UNP underwent many vicissitudes | Sunday Observer

UNP underwent many vicissitudes

6 November, 2022

The United National Party (UNP) was formed by D.S. Senanayake in 1946 with the support of all community leaders of the State Council who represented the Ceylon National Congress. The name, the United National Party was chosen for this new political party since the all community leaders of the State Council were united and gave the unconditional support to D.S. Senanayake.

The progressive measures taken by the United National Party for agricultural development, inter communal harmony and mostly for the independence and sovereignty of the nation proved to be very successful.

The island’s first general election was held under the Soulbury Constitution in 1947 and D.S. Senanayake was elected Prime Minister under the United National Party banner. The country’s most significant achievement by the UNP regime was gaining independence on 4th February 1948 from the colonial bondage of over 13 decades.

The United National Party became firmly rooted in the country due to its development activities while the LSSP Leader Dr. N.M. Perera functioned as the Opposition Leader instigating the working class people to revolt against all progressive activities of the government.

Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake who was subsequently known as the Father of the Nation passed away at an unexpected moment falling off his horse while engaged in his regular physical exercises at the Galle Face green in March 1951. His elder son Dudley Senanayake who was the Minister of Agriculture then, was appointed Prime Minister by Lord Soulbury over an understanding he had with D.S. Senanayake. Sir John Kothelawala was not very happy with this arrangement and had disagreement with the new Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake.

Dudley Senanayake, a Cambridge Scholar and a very mild mannered politician immediately dissolved the parliament and went for an election. The UNP recorded a convincing victory obtaining over a two-thirds majority under the leadership of Dudley Senanayake. By this time the UNP had consolidated its position in all parts of the country. Dudley Senanayake also continued the all development began by his beloved father delivering more benefits to his countrymen. He continued as the Prime Minister for two more years very successfully but had many confrontations with Sir John Kothalawala who was eying at the premiership. Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s health was also deteriorated with these unending problems and finally he stepped down from the chair and retired from politics paving the way for Sir John to take over the reins of the party and the country.

Sir John Kothalawala, a militant personality and a rigid and arrogant administrator, confronted everybody who opposed him including Maha Sangha. The UNP membership was not very happy with the way he ruled the country and the government under Sir John’s leadership became unpopular even before the completion of the parliamentary term. A general election was held in 1956 and the UNP was reduced to a mere 8 members in the house. This was the first ever defeat suffered by the UNP since it its formation in 1946.

SLFP led coalition formed a government under the able leadership of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaiake. Bandaranaiake made Sinhala the official language within 24 hours amidst objections from various quarters and restructured a number of institutions based on his political ideology. Some of his policies were vehemently criticised by the opposition which claimed that he was adopting an anti-imperialist stand which would result in offending the friendly Western nations.

With the passage of time, governments changed from term to term between the UNP and SLFP led coalitions until 1977.

UNP leader Dudley Senanayake who held premiership in four occasions and rendered great service to the nation passed away in 1973. After the death of Dudley Senanayake, undisputed deputy leader of the party, J.R. Jayewardene who was also the Opposition Leader then, became the leader of the United National Party. J.R. Jayewardene very astute and a farsighted leader who felt the pulse of the people, completely re-organised the party mechanism to face the next election. He appointed new electoral organisers to a number of electorates and most of them were very young and upcoming youth from their hometowns.

Landslide victory for UNP

In the 1977 general election the UNP recorded the highest ever victory that a single party could attain where democratic parliamentary system is practiced in the whole world. J.R. Jayewardene became the Prime Minister in July 1977 and lost no time in introducing his brainchild, the Executive Presidency and preferential voting system for all elections.

J.R. Jayewardene was an astute politician with an ocean of knowledge in all spheres of ruling the State. Past election records had proved that the UNP vote base remain unchanged or almost intact, even at the worst defeats suffered by the party. Hence, the introduction of the new system would help the UNP to remain in power continuously.

As expected by JRJ everything was perfectly alright during his tenure as far as the subsequent elections were concerned.

President Jayewardene also had a number of able lieutenants under his wing on whom he entrusted mega development projects, administrative functions, international affairs, trade union activities, beside party promotional programs.

JRJ retired from politics after completing his two terms and his term of office goes down in Sri Lanka’s history as one of the most progressive periods in respect of socio-economic development in the country. With the introduction of the open economic policy and the free market systems, certain luxurious items hitherto enjoyed only by a marginal percentage of the people were extended to all the countrymen irrespective of any differences.

The United National Party was well consolidated with its political activities and all other political parties, including the SLFP, were virtually driven to political doldrums. After J.R. Jayewardene retired from politics Ranasinghe Premadasa became the President and the leader of the United National Party.

Political blunder

Although President Premadasa was an experienced and a practical politician, he made a political blunder by sidelining party stalwarts such as Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake, G.M. Premachandra and some others. These party stalwarts finally broke away from the United National Party and formed a new political party. (Eagle Party). They joined hands with the Opposition and brought an impeachment motion against Ranasinghe Premadasa. However Premadasa managed to weather the political storm though it was the beginning of the collapse of the hitherto well consolidated United National Party. Ranil Wickremesinghe was the Minister of Science and Industries in Premadasa cabinet and he fully supported his leader when his position was challenged by the breakaway group. Wickremesinghe always stood by the leader following the democratic principles of politics. He was also persuaded by the breakaway group to join them, but he turned down this since he was a true loyalist and committed democrat.

President Premadasa was assassinated on May 1, 1993 by the LTTE and Prime Minister Wijethunga became the President. It was admirable to see how Wickremesinghe handled the transition of power from behind the curtain without letting the unruly masses to create chaotic situation in the country.

However, the United National Party experienced a gloomy period in its history mainly owing to the LTTE Terrorism losing most of its prominent leaders within a span of less than two years and entire grass root level membership remained crest fallen.

By this time the SLFP had received a new lease of life with Chandrika Kumarathunga taking centre stage in politics and the United National Party which had remained in power for 17 years lost the 1994 general election.

While Chandrika Bandaraniake Kumarathunga was in power as the President, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe managed to form a UNP government in 2001 and signed a ceasefire agreement with the LTTE movement to resolve the long drawn battle against terrorism while introducing a large number of development projects for the socio economic development of the country. He successfully negotiated a huge financial facility for the said programs from the donor nations. In this backdrop President Chandrika Kumarathunga dissolved the government due to the pressure exerted by the JVP members and some other SLFP opportunists and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government was defeated in 2004.

Mahinda Rajapaksa managed to scrape through to the presidency at 2005 election with a marginal majority but since he was able to militarily defeat the long drawn LTTE terrorism which helped him win his second term quite comfortably.

Consecutive defeats

The United National Party suffered defeats after defeats. With the consecutive defeats suffered by the party Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership was challenged by a reformist group led by Sajith Premadasa and continued to agitate against the party constitution too to make provisions to oust the leader. They continued their struggle for over a decade against Ranil Wickremesinghe but failed miserably to make any impact to the leadership as R.W is an astute veteran and a far sighted politician who would not be swayed by gimmicks of these political novices of the party.

Finally they realised the futility of their long drawn attempt and broke away from the UNP and joined a party owned by one Mrs. Diana Gamage and her husband, Samagi Jana Balawegaya. However the United National Party suffered the worst ever debacle at the last general election and the party was entitled for just one parliamentary seat based on the total number of votes cast for the party. After a repeated requests from all the party stalwarts and all other stakeholders of the party, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the solo parliamentarian from the UNP, almost one and half years after the election.

Chaotic situation in the country

From the beginning of 2020, the all Powerful regime of Gotabaya Rajapaksa became rapidly unpopular due to the wrong economic policies, arrogant and rigid manner in tackling very sensitive issues and the unprecedented degree of corruption taking place in all vital Institutions which finally led to a severe economic disaster with shortages in all essential day to day requirements of the public. There was a severe uprising of the people against the government which turned out to be a violent campaign with the support of bankrupt political extremists who started destroying the public and private property all over the country.

The Prime Minister was forced to step down and the President Gotabaya abiding by the constitutional requirements invited the Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa to take over the government for which his response was negative and it was so with some others, citing lame excuses. The solo parliamentarian of the United National Party, Ranil Wickremesinghe displaying his leadership qualities and the caliber of statesmanship, accepted the challenge boldly to guide the nation in this hour of need.

After the dramatic change with the constitutional process UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected Executive President of the country by the parliament with a handsome majority. UNP membership received a new lease of life with the ascension of their leader to the Presidency which was quite evident at their anniversary celebrations. Party activists were back again on the move in their areas.

The recent invitation by Ranil Wickremesinghe to all other parties to join him has received positive response already.

And with his farsighted vision for the country and the program of work, there will be a better tomorrow for the countrymen while UNP remains hydra-headed.