A glimpse of the 1956 election

Saturday, 30 August 2014 04:35 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) will be 63 years old next week. The party was formed on 2 September 1951. Founder S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike quit the UNP Government in July 1951 resigning from his Cabinet portfolio and as Leader of the House. He had earlier founded the Sinhala Maha Sabha in 1936 and in 1947 it became a part of the United National Party (UNP) to contest the general election under the Soulbury Constitution. The SLFP was formed to replace the Sinhala Maha Sabha.Addressing the large gathering present at the inauguration of the new party, he referred to it as an occasion of “some importance” in the political history of our country. Though he was very modest about it, within four years, he led a coalition to beat the powerful UNP to form the government. “It not only marks the birth of a new political party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, but it also ushers in, in many ways, a new political era. I am certain that it is consciousness of this fact that has drawn to this meeting such large numbers of citizens of all races, religions, and classes from all parts of the country,” he said launching the party. He then traced the history of the country’s Freedom Movement against the colonial masters which he said had really started with the Temperance Movement in the early part of the 20th century. “It is true that this campaign was primarily intended to deal with a social evil, but as it was directed against the policy of the British Government in regard to a certain subject i.e. Excise, it possessed certain elements of a national movement against Colonial Government. At the start a great deal of public enthusiasm was aroused and there was the possibility of the creation of a mass movement against foreign rule. Unfortunately the leaders of the campaign allowed it to peter out, and what eventually became of it we all know,” he explained.

Within a few months after the formation of the party, there was a general election following the death of Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake when his successor Dudley Senanayake sought a mandate to continue. The SLFP hurriedly prepared to contest the elections and fielded 48 candidates. (The number of elected candidates was then 95 with five nominated members to form the 101-member House of Representatives). The party collected 361,250 votes (average 15.52%) and got nine seats. Party leader Bandaranaike became Leader of the Opposition. When Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawela (he had succeeded Dudley S who left due to ill health) called for a general election in 1956 ahead of schedule, the SLFP held discussions with several other opposition parties and formed a coalition as the Mahajana Eksath Peramujna (MEP) with Philp Gunawardenas’s Viplavakari Sama Samaja Pakshaya (VLSSP) as the main partner. We were then undergraduates in the Peradeniya University and were naturally interested in the elections. The left parties were quite active in the campus at the time. It was more or less a fashion for the undergrads to be aligned with a left party. I can’t remember the UNP or the SLFP having any organised groups as such. But I do remember SLFP stalwart T.B. Ilangaratne (he was to become a minister in the Bandaranaike Cabinet) coming to the campus. We were at Jayatilleka Hall and I think he knew Nimal Karunatilleka, who had been a journalist in ‘Lankadeepa’ before entering the university. Ilangaratne came driving a Morris Eight (popularly known as the ‘mukkan model’), parked it at the entrance and joined us at the tuck shop (garage turned tuck shop) for a chat and plain tea. He was really looking for candidates to contest the election. The visits became quite regular. One day, Nimal who was to do his final exam in a month or two, said he was willing to contest. It didn’t take much time to formally announce that Nimal had got party nomination for the Matale seat. It was going to be tough because it was the stronghold of SLFF Secretary Bernard Aluvihare, who had crossed over and contesting on the UNP ticket. The election held over three days in April clashed with our final exam, which made us observers rather than active participants in what was to be a momentous election. We were all excited that ‘our man Nimal’ was contesting and whether we had any party leanings or not, all were his supporters. Nimal’s roommate Wijaya Dorkumbura (Dore, as we called him) was from Matale and got his contacts to canvass for Nimal. It so happened that Matale was among the electorates that went to polls on the first day. (The election was held over three days.) We were up in the night waiting for the results. The first result announced was that of Matale. We were overwhelmed when Nimal Karunatillke was declared the winner. He really brought luck to the MEP. He gave the lead to the stream of winners for the party over the three days. At the end the tally was 51 seats. The number of votes recorded over a million 1,046,277 to be exact. The ruling UNP was reduced to a mere eight seats. To cap it all, Nimal K had not only won the hearts of Matale voters but also that of a ‘menike’. Within a month or two he brought down a ‘ketalen mallak’ to Colombo. His roommate Dore became Private Secretary to Labour Minister Tikiri Banda Ilangaratne. I joined Lake House as a reporter in ‘Dinamina’ and got ample stories related to better deals for employees. One of the scoops was the proposal to set up the Employees Provident Fund .