United National Party

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United National Party
Eksath Jathika Pakshaya
Sinhala name එක්සත් ජාතික පක්ෂය
Tamil name ஐக்கிய தேசியக் கட்சி
Leader Ranil Wickramasinghe
Founder Don Stephen Senanayake
Secretary Tissa Attanayake
Founded September 6, 1946 (1946-09-06)
Merger of Ceylon National Congress, Sinhala Maha Sabha, Muslim League
Headquarters "Sirikotha House", 400 Kotte Road, Pitakotte, Sri Jayawardenapura
Ideology Liberal conservatism
Political position Centre-right
National affiliation United National Front
International affiliation International Democrat Union
Colors      Green
Parliament of Sri Lanka
42 / 225
Election symbol
Elephant
United National Party logo.png
Website
www.unp.lk
Politics of Sri Lanka
Political parties
Elections

The United National Party, often referred to as the UNP (Sinhala: එක්සත් ජාතික පක්ෂය, pronounced Eksath Jathika Pakshaya, Tamil: ஐக்கிய தேசியக் கட்சி), is a political party in Sri Lanka. It currently is the main opposition party in Sri Lanka and is headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNP is considered to have right-leaning, pro-capitalist, Liberal conservative policies.

At the last legislative elections in Sri Lanka, held on 2 April 2004, the UNP was the leading member of the coalition United National Front, which won 37.8% of the popular vote and 82 out of 225 seats in Parliament. It came in second to the United People's Freedom Alliance, a left-leaning coalition, which won 45.60% of the vote. The Front previously held a majority in parliament from December 2001 until April 2004, when it had 109 seats, with Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister. The UNP had previously been the governing party or in the governing coalition from 1947 to 1956, from 1965 to 1970 and from 1977 to 1994. In total, the UNP governed Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) for 33 of 57 years of its independent history. The UNP also had control of the executive presidency from the presidency's formation in 1978 to 1994.

The UNP is a conservative party to the right of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, favouring a more neo-liberal market-oriented economy. The UNP is also member of the International Democrat Union.

UNP and twelve other opposition parties in the Parliament of Sri Lanka, signed an Opposition Alliance 3 November 2009 in the Sri Lankan Parliament Building.

History[edit]

The UNP was founded on 6 September 1946 by amalgamating three right-leaning pro-dominion parties from the majority Sinhalese community and minority Tamil and Muslim communities. It was founded by Don Stephen Senanayake, who was in the forefront in the struggle for independence from the United Kingdom, having resigned from the Ceylon National Congress because he disagreed with its revised aim of 'the achieving of freedom' from the British Empire.[1] The UNP represented the business community and the landed gentry. However, Senanayake also adopted populist policies that made the party accepted in the grassroots level.

The UNP campaigned in the 1947 general election on a platform of dominion under the United Kingdom and protecting the traditional way of life and Buddhism, the religion followed by the majority of the people, from alleged communist threats from the left-wing opposition parties (the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party of Ceylon). The UNP failed to win a working majority and cobbled together a coalition with Sinhalese and Tamil elements. Ceylon became a dominion in 1948, with D.S. Senanayake as the first prime minister. He followed a pro-West, anti-Communist foreign policy much to the ire of the Soviet Union. The commanders of the armed forces were all British officers and Britain retained military bases in the country.

The new government proceeded to disenfranchise the plantation workers of Indian descent, the Indian Tamils, using the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act of 1949. These measures were intended primarily to undermine the Left electorally.[2]

In 1952 Prime Minister Senanayake died in a riding accident, and his son Dudley became Prime Minister. This irked long standing UNP stalwart S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, a Buddhist nationalist leader known for his cente-left views. Bandaranaike quit the party to found the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as a balancing force between the UNP and Marxist parties.

In 1953 the UNP attempted to reduce the rice ration and there was a Hartal, which caused Dudley Senanayake to resign. He was replaced by his cousin, Major John Kotelawala. The UNP was jocularly referred to at this time as the 'Uncle Nephew Party'.

There was growing disaffection with the UNP particularly because of its support of minority religious groups, most notably Catholics, to the consternation of the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese. Bandaranaike was able to take advantage and lead the SLFP to victory in the 1956 elections. Soon afterwards he passed the controversial Sinhala Only Act, which led to communal clashes in 1958. An attempt at a language compromise with the Tamil Federal Party was thwarted when the UNP organised a 'March on Kandy'.

In 1962 the UNP was accused of instigating a failed coup d'état carried out by right-wing elements in the army with civilian collaborators like Douglas Liyanage. The UNP again came to power in 1965 in coalition with the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, the Tamil ethnic Federal Partyunder Dudley Senanayake, but it lost in a 1970 landslide to the SLFP, which had formed an electoral alliance with Marxist parties known as the United Front.

A bitter leadership battle soon developed between the populist Dudley Senanayake and the more conservative J. R. Jayewardene, a strong supporter of free market policies and a pro-American foreign policy. For the latter, he was called “Yankee Dickey.”

JR Jayawardene's Machine[edit]

After Dudley Senanayake’s death in 1973, J.R. Jayewardene became leader of the UNP and started reorganizing the party at the grass roots level.

General disaffection with the economic policies of the United Front coalition and its brutal crackdown against a 1971 Maoist insurrection by the JVP, as well as promise to provide each person with a free ration of eight kilograms of cereal, brought the UNP to power in 1977. The party won an unprecedented five-sixths of the seats in parliament - one of the most lopsided victories ever in a democratic election and out of proportion to the actual number of votes it received.

The UNP began its unbroken 17-year rule with pogroms, first against leftists and, within a month, against the Tamil minority. There was widespread victimisation of state employees.

J.R. Jayewardene got himself elected Executive President by Parliament and, in 1978, introduced a new constitution (which incidentally first called the country a "Democratic Socialist" republic) transforming the presidency into an executive post with sweeping powers. In 1979, President Jayawardene introduced the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act, ostensibly to quell a low-key armed insurrection in the Northern Province by separatist Tamil rebels - which had, ironically, been given life by Jayawardene's anti-Tamil measures.

The UNP opened up the economy and revolutionized the entire outlook of the country. "Let the robber barons come“ was the expression used by President J.R. Jayawardena to describe the measures introduced.[3]

On the economic front, free-market policies initially harmed the nascent electronic and motor spares industries, as well as the long-established tea machinery industry, leading to the loss of about 100,000 manufacturing jobs. Free-trade zones were established in order to generate employment, but unemployment was primarily reduced by sending menial workers to the Middle East. The government undertook massive development work to promote hydroelectricity and agriculture.

Following an election petition, the UNP MP for the Kalawana electorate was unseated. However, he was permitted to continue sitting in Parliament, even after the Communist Party of Sri Lanka's Sarath Muttetuwegama was elected at a by-election. The UNP attempted to pass a constitutional amendment to allow members unseated by election petition to continue sitting in the house, but it was not approved by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka.

However, rising unprecedented inflation generally made the public frustrated with the government, leading to a series of Opposition-led strikes, culminating in a general strike in 1980, which was crushed by the police and armed members of the UNP’s trade union wing. Thousands of government workers were summarily sacked after warnings.

In 1982 a 3rd amendment to the constitution was passed, enabling the President to seek re-election after 4 years. Thereafter, a presidential election was held in which vote rigging was widespread - even the main opposition candidate, Hector Kobbekaduwa was impersonated, and the widely known Communist leader Pieter Keuneman also found that his vote had been cast for him when he arrived at the booth.

Immediately after the election, the government had leading members of the opposition arrested as "Naxalites" and held a referendum to extend parliament's life amid widespread vote-rigging and voter intimidation.

Meanwhile, separatist Tamil rebels in the north and eastern provinces began an insurgency for a separate state for Tamils. In July 1983, members of the government organised a pogrom against Tamils in all parts of the country after a rebel attack in Jaffna which killed 13 soldiers of the Rajarata Rifles. The government was criticised to have used the riots as an excuse to ban several opposition parties including the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, the Nava Sama Samaja Party and the Marxist nationalist JVP which had heavy influence on university campuses. (see Black July)

The Tamil rebel groups were allegedly trained and armed by India, angry with Jayewardene's pro-American policy. The intelligence operative Victor Ostrovsky charged that Mossad was arming and training both Government troops and Tamil militants.[4]

By 1987, the Sri Lankan military had cornered the LTTE in Jaffna, on the tip of the island and were confident of bringing an end to the conflict. However, due to internal pressure, specifically concern about the 50 million Tamils living in India, the Indian government called for a halt to the offensive. After the request was snubbed by Sri Lanka, the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ordered a flotilla of ships be sent to relieve the LTTE. After the convoy was blocked by the Sri Lanka Navy, India instead chose to airdrop supplies to the besieged city in a mission codenamed Operation Poomalai.[5] Jayewardene threatened to fight the Indians to the last bullet but, finding the American backing he was counting on was not materialising, he caved in and signed an Indo-Sri Lankan Accord with Rajiv Gandhi, whereby an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was stationed in Sri Lanka.

This caused a nationalist backlash. A naval rating swung his rifle at Rajiv Gandhi, confessing later that he hit the Indian PM because he could not reach Jayawardene. There were riots in the streets of Colombo - but no anti-Tamil actions.

The JVP began an intense attack on government forces in hope of a socialist revolution, but this turned out to be an utter failure. The government allegedly used death squads to crush the insurrection. In the due process over 40,000 civilians “disappeared” at the hands of the armed forces, and death squads and torture chambers sprung up to interrogate JVP activists. Many abducted youth were summarily executed. The intensive offensive crushed the rebels. JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera was captured and later executed by the armed forces in custody.

Jayewardene retired in 1988 and was succeeded by Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, a populist leader from the lower class known for his anti-Indian sentiment. He was elected President in another election criticised as violent and rigged by the opposition. While he initiated many housing projects and poverty alleviation programs, his was a regime of terror under which opponents simply "disappeared", most notably the journalist Richard de Zoysa. In 1993 Premadasa was assassinated by separatist LTTE suicide cadres at a May Day rally.

Opposition: 1994–2001[edit]

By this time the people were longing for a change due to allegations of inefficiency and corruption against the UNP government, as well the White Terror under Premadasa. In the 1994 election, the Peoples Alliance gained control of parliament after 17 years of unbroken UNP rule. While in opposition many of UNP stalwarts were killed by an LTTE suicide terrorist attack during an election rally which saw the assassination of Gamini Dissanayake, the UNP's presidential candidate. This paved the way for an easy victory for Chandrika Kumaratunga of the SLFP. Party leadership passed to Jayewardene's nephew, Ranil Wickremasinghe, a relatively young politician with pro-west views and penchant for neo-liberal economic policies.

In government from 2001 to 2004[edit]

By 2001 the country was facing the worst economic downturn since independence, with rising inflation and an acute power crisis. The GDP was shrinking by 2.5%. The SLFP government fell on a no-confidence motion by the opposition, which prompted President Kumaratunga to call for early elections. Wickaramasinghe managed to secure the support of former government big wigs most notably former Kumaratunga confidants, Prof. G.L. Peiris, and S.B. Dissanayake who would later become important members in the party. The UNP easily came to power in the 2001 election in a platform of peace with LTTE and economic resurgence, and won all but one district in the country. Wickremasinghe became the Prime Minister for the second time following the election and began a "co-habitational" government with President Kumaratunga.

Within two months into his premiership Wickramasinghe signed a pivotal ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. The agreement was followed by intense peace negotiations towards a solution to the ethnic conflict. During Eelam War III, which followed as the negotiations were not yet complete, the LTTE proceeded to regain territories that it had lost before.

The UNP government maintained strict fiscal discipline and market-friendly policies, which led to a resurgence in the economy,large-scale investments, and rapid economic growth. The government created key economic institutions such as the Board of Investment, the Ministry for Small and Rural Enterprises, and the Information Communication Technology Agency. Economic growth continued to accelerate, reaching almost 6% at the end of 2003, while inflation was at less than 2%, an allp-ime low. Many local and foreign experts believed that Sri Lanka at current pace would reach double digit economic growth within a few years.

Unfortunately for Wickramasinghe and the UNP government, constant cease-fire breaches by the LTTE, including the constant stream of assassinations of military spies, paved the way for nationalistic factions such as the JVP and its other cover organizations such as the Deesha Hithaishi Jathika Viyaparaya (Patriotic National Movement) to organize protests. They tried to convince the public that Wickramasinghe was giving too much away to the LTTE. Hardline Sinhalese Buddhist organizations such as the Sihala Urumaya (Sinhalese Heritage) criticized the government on the same lines, and also for allegedly pandering to western evangelical Christian organizations and thereby encouraging proselytizing and endangering Buddhism. The Sihala Urumaya would later rename themselves as Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Sinhalese Heritage) and put forward Buddhist monks to contest elections.

In late 2003 the President took over the National Lotteries Board. The UNP blocked this move by surrounding the government press so that the gazette could not be printed. As a retaliatory move the President then took over the ministries of Mass Communications, Defence, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, while Prime Minister Wickramasinghe was visiting George W. Bush in Washington DC. Kumaratunga and her confidants launched a massive media attack on their nominal partners, branding Wickramasinghe as a traitor and accusing the UNP government of "selling" national heritage sites to foreigners.

Opposition again: 2004–present[edit]

Early in 2004, the SLFP and JVP formed the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), signalling the beginning of the end for the UNP government. In February 2004, within 24 hours of a well rehearsed speech for national unity, Kumaratunga dissolved parliament.

In the subsequent election on 2 April 2004, the UNP was defeated by the UPFA. Wickramasinghe remained as leader of the UNP.

In the presidential election of 17 November, its candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe, came second with 48.43% of the vote. So it resulted in a defeat and a win for the UPFA candidate Mahinda Rajapakse. It is widely believed that if not for the boycott of the polls in the North and parts of the East, allegedly due to LTTE intimidation, Wickramsinghe would have won. It has been apparent however that Ranil Wickramasinghe, although winning the support of the minority communities (Tamils and Muslims); he was unable to gain the trust of the bulk of the majority Sinhalese community.

In early 2007, 18 senior members of the UNP joined President Mahinda Rajapakse's ruling coalition. All of them were given ministerial positions. This resulted in a state of political unrest, as the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the President and the UNP leader in late 2006 was read as no longer valid. This incident, generally recorded in the press as 'crossovers', also resulted in a state where a number of senior government ministers expressed concern over the 'jumbo cabinet' of ministers. On Friday 9 February 2007, the president sacked three ministers for their remarks against the new political configuration.

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