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Sri Lanka's 1977 General Election: The Resurgence of the UNP Author(s): Vijaya Samaraweera Source: Asian Survey,

Vol. 17, No. 12 (Dec., 1977), pp. 1195-1206 Published by: University of California Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2643421 . Accessed: 22/02/2014 11:38
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THE RECENT CHANGE in the political complexion of SouthAsia with the electoraldefeatof Indira Gandhi and the Congress Partyin India and themilitary take-over of power in Pakistanhas now been given a further dimension with the stunningelectoral loss of SirimavoBandaranaike'sSri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) in the July 1977 general election for the National State Assembly(NSA) of Sri Lanka. The defeatof the SLFP and the reemergence of the United NationalParty(UNP) as themajor political forcein the island was anticipated by all observers, but the magnitudeof the UNP victory exceeded the even themostoptimistic projectionsof its supporters. Furthermore, total eliminationof the Marxistparties fromthe legislature was a developmentthat even their staunchestopponents hardlyexpected. In what proved to be the hardestfoughtgeneral election in Sri Lanka since independencein 1948, the electoratehas wroughta remarkable change in the national posture of the country's political parties,and there is little doubt that this general election will attractas much attentionas the "1956 Revolution," which carried S.W.R.D. scholarly Bandaranaikeand his SLFP to power forthe first time.

Delimitation TheNew Electoral

The general election of July 1977 was the first to be held under the Republican Constitution of Sri Lanka enacted in May 1972. The new Constitution, did not call forany changesin the previous however, electoral system;indeed, its provisionsrelating to delimitation-the which the parliamentary formalprocessthrough seats were redefined aftereach new census-were identical to those in the Constitutionit the replaced.Following the procedurelaid down in the Constitution, Presidentof Sri Lanka appointed a three-man (a Sinhalese, a Tamil, and a Muslim) Delimitation Commissionin August 1974 to proceed electorates afresh withthe taskof delimiting on thebasis of the popula1195

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in the 1971 census.The Commission tionfigures completedits deliberationsand publishedits findings in October 1976.' Its workhad been interrupted by a change in membershipand, more importantly, by an to the Constitutionbroughtinto forcein February 1975 amendment a reconsideration whichnecessitated of matters beforeit. The Commission initially (as was requiredof the twopreviousDelimitationCommissionsof 1946and 1959 as well) had to assignto each of the island'snine provincesone seat forevery1,000 square miles in its area, givingdue considerationto "the transport facilitiesin the province,its physical and community features and diversity of interests of the inhabitants."2 The population criterion was changed to 90,000 by the First Amendmentto the 1972Constitution and thischangeof courseforcedthecommissionto reexamineits work as well as to providean opportunity to thepublic once again to make representations. The FirstAmendment was justified by therulingcoalition governmentprimarily as a cost-cutting measure.It was arguedthatthe expansion of theNSA from151 to 220 electedmembers under the 75,000population criterion was a measurewhich could not be supportedin view of thesevere Nevertheeconomicand financialcrisisfacingthe country. less,the increasein the population as reflected in the 1971 Census was a factor which could not be easily overlookedand the government decided upon the figureof 90,000 as a "happy medium."3The 90,000 reduced the numberof electorates on population basis from195 figure to 143 (see Table 1) and withthearea weightage (whichwas not affected the new NSA consistsof a by any change in the population criterion) totalof 168 electedmembers. The FirstAmendment did not drastically alter the patternof distribution of parliamentary seeatsin theisland. The originalpopulation criterion of 75,000 and the area weightage had effectively resultedin a heavytiltin favorof the rural areas in the interior in the allocation of seats. It has been argued that the rural bias in delimitationwas the resultof an expectationon the part of the political leadershipin 1948 that theirprimarysource of political strength would be in the rural areas, in contrastto theirMarxist opponentswhose supportbase was to the populous and urbanizedSouthwest.4 The First largelyconfined Amendment, the population criterion, by increasing workedto the disadvantageof the denselypopulated regions(the WesternProvincelost themost-eight seats),while theretention of area weightage meantthat thesparsely continuedto receivea higherproportion populatedinterior of seatsrelative to theSouthwest. has relied more Though initiatedby the SLFP, which traditionally
2 Ibid., p. 3.

1 Report of the Delimitation Commission 1976, Sessional Paper No. 1 of 1976.

Press, 1973),pp. 133-134.

4 Robert N. Kearney. The Politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) (Cornell University

3 Lankadipa, November 11, 1974; Ceylon Daily News, December 5, 1974.

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was endorsed on ruralareas forpolitical support, the FirstAmendment by the two Marxistparties that had joined hands with the SLFP to under Mrs. Bandaranaike. It formthe United Front (UF) government is clear, however,that the Marxist parties-the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and theCommunist Party(CP)-were less thanhappywith themeasure,which,afterthe break up of the UF coalition, the Marxas detrimental to the interests of the workingclasses.5 istscharacterized On the otherhand, the amendment was heavilyattackedfromthe beginningby minority groups,especially the Muslims and the Indian Tamils, on thegroundsthatany increasein the averagevotersper elecin areas wherethey toratewould tend to dilute theirelectoralstrength The DelimitationCommission, in pockets.6 wereconcentrated however, constiassuaged theirfearsto some extentby creatingmulti-member of theseinterests with the representation in mind.7 tuencies The Campaign Two pertinent pointsshould be kept in mind when the preelection political groups are preparations and the campaignsof the respective This examined.First,thebreak-up of theUF was of crucialimportance. has argued,"amountedto a virtualrejectionof split,one commentator radical soluthe searchby SLFP-led coalitionssince 1956 forleft-wing colonial socioeconomic tionsto the problemsarisingfromthe country's It is not only in termsof ideologyand policy-making that structure."8 thisdevelopment should be evaluated.It also had considerableimpact on theelectioncampaignsand electoralfortunes of the SLFP as well as the LSSP and the CP in the 1977 election.Second, the failureon the to make any major headway in part of the Bandaranaike government solvingthe economicand social problemsfacingthe island afterseven not onlyforthe SLFP but yearsin powerposed questionsof credibility, also forthe Marxistpartiesthathad been associatedwith the SLFP as foroverfiveyears. junior partners in the government It is clear that the UNP was the best prepared of the political partiesforthe 1977 electioncampaign.Electioncampaignsin Sri Lanka nominations fortheelectoralcontest usuallybegin in earnestonly after

1974. The minorityinterestswere also perturbed by the elimination of the system of Nominated Members of Parliament under the Republican Constitution. This categoryof members were meant to represent those minoritygroups who found no representationthrough the electoral process. 7 See Report of the Delimitation Commission 1976, p. 5 and p. 7. Multimember constituencies were to be created "if the racial composition of the citizens of a Province is such that it is desirable to render possible the representationof any substantialconcentration of citizensin that province."Ibid., p. 3. Two 3-member and four 2-memberconstituencies were formed. 8 P.V.J.Jayasekera, "Sri Lanka in 1976: Changing Strategiesand Confrontation," Asian Survey,17:2 (February 1977), p. 208.

6 For representativeviews of these groups, see Ceylon Observer, December 1,

See for example, The Nation (LSSP), December 12, 1975.

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have been formally accepted,9 but on this occasion the UNP clearly had begun the taskmuch earlier.It had had seven years to devote to thepreparation forthe nextpolls, unhamperedby the problemswhich inevitably faced the governing groups. However, the early yearswere largelyspenton internalconflicts that arose afterthe election of J. R. Jayawardene as the partyleader followingthe death of Dudley Senanayakein April 1973.The conflicts seemedto have primarily stemmed from theclaimsmade by themembers of the Senanayakefamily(which had producedthe first two Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka) and the associates of the late leader forpositionsand authority in the partystructure.ArguingthattheUNP, as a mass-based political party, should not be subjected to the pressuresexerted by familyor kinship groups, Jayawardene deftlyoutmaneuveredthose who challenged him. The controversy culminatedwith the expulsion of Rukman Senanayake (who had won the late leader's constituency for the party) fromthe UNP fordisciplinary reasons.Thereafter, Jayawardene turnedhis wellknownorganizationaltalentsto the reshapingof the party'sideology its identification away from as a strictly rightist organizationto a centristposition,as well as to the revitalizing of the demoralized party organizations at the district and village levels. In particular,the selection of prospective candidatesforthe forthcoming polls was givenhigh priority; endeavorswere made to recruitnew "faces,"especiallyfrom the youngergeneration,to lead the partyat constituency level. The UNP, of course,was able to exploit fullythe considerableeconomic facedby the Bandaranaikegovernment difficulties duringthisperiod of time. The new delimitationnecessitated a revisionof the UNP's list of candidatesas well as its campaign strategies but, nonetheless, by the time nominationswere submitted(June 6), the UNP was amply prepared to face the voters.The party'smain strategy clearlywas to identifythe Marxistpartieswith the SLFP in the errorsof omission and A greatdeal of emphasis commission made by thepreviousgovernment. was placed on the excesses committedduring two traumaticevents whichtook place in the last sevenyears-the April Revolt of 1971 and the police-students clash at the Universityof Sri Lanka Peradeniya Campus in December 1976. One other issue receivedequal attention: the allegednepotismof Mrs. Bandaranaike as the Prime Minister.10 The SLFP faced the polls with many drawbacks.Its poor record was no doubt a liability. as the dominantpartyin the UF government Equally, the challenge which it received from its formerallies, the The SLFP LSSP and the CP, proved to be a sourceof embarrassment. had joined withthetwoMarxistpartieswitha committment to,as their
9 Kearney,Politics of Ceylon, p. 148. 10 A reading of the UNP's election pamphlet literature in particular reveals these issues were exploited by the party. how cleverlyand effectively

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Common Programmedeclared, "rapid progress towards a socialist democracy." But with the ousterof the LSSP fromthe coalition,there on the part of the Bandaranaikegovernment to was an increasing shift and towards of the theright a dismantling of manycherished programs left.This remarkabletransformation of the ideologyand policy could not be easily explained away and undoubtedlydamaged the SLFP's On theotherhand,theSLFP was very much imageas a "socialist"party. influenced aware thatits electoralsuccessesin the past were greatly by the presenceor absence of "no-contest pacts" with the Marxists."'The disintegration of the coalition also forcedthe SLFP to thinkin terms of organizing and presenting candidatesin electorates which had been formed in 1968. It also concededto the Marxistswhen the UF was first fromitsranksin the legislahad the added burdenof severaldefections of the turein themonthspreceding the nominations. The formulation list of candidateswas further complicatedby the decision of several not to face the forthcoming contest.The conseniorparliamentarians was that the SLFP was inadequatelypresequence of all thesefactors pared forthe poll. This inadequate preparationwas especiallyrevealed in the attempts made by partyleaders,ratherbelatedlyand hastily,to forgeonce again the Pancha Maha Balavegayal2which had played a crucialrole in the "1956 Revolution."The efforts failed; the Buddhist who were perhapsthe most important elementin in particular, priests 1956,wereby now equally attracted to the UNP (withits anti-Buddhist diminished to Buddhism)as image considerably by a new commitment to the SLFP and, indeed,some of themore charismatic public speakers had joined the UNP ranks. among thesangha (Buddhistclergy) The LSSP and CP revivedthe United Left Front (ULF), which also includedthe People's DemocraticPartyestablishedby a group of who had left the SLFP. Though the LSSP left-wing parliamentarians and the CP heavily concentrated their attackson the SLFP in their neither campaigns, partycould avoid being taintedby the poor performance of the Bandaranaike government. Their role as championsof the working classeshad been tarnished in a govby theirparticipation which had made increasinguse of state power to curb trade ernment The successof theJanataVimukti union rights. Peramuna(JVP) in the first had revealed that the traditional yearsof the UF government support the Marxistsreceivedfromthe youthwas no longer assured and that left-wing which took more extremepositionscould organizations becomepowersto be reckonedwith.The JVP movement, of course,lost itsmomentum withthecrushing of the 1971April (perhapstemporarily) Marxistpartiesin the reRevolt,but the associationof the traditional pressionseemedto have lingeredon in the people's memory. Moreover, afterdecades of using rhetoric-this use is worthexploringfurtherIIA. J. Wilson, Politics in Sri Lanka, 1947-1973 (St. Martin's Press, 1974), pp. 211-212. 12Dawasa, July 2, 1977. The Pancha AMahaBalavegaya or "Five Great Forces" is comprisedof Buddhist priests,teachers,ayurvedaphysicians,farmers, and workers.

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"socialism"as an ideological tool seemsto have lost much of its luster. In any case, with the otherpolitical parties (including the UNP) also advancing claims of "socialist" goals in their party manifestos, the Marxists no longerhad the monopolyover the ideologyor therhetoric. As in thepast,theUNP, SLFP, and the Marxists concentrated their electoralefforts in the Sinhalese areas. They enteredthe forayin the Eastern Province,but the NorthernProvince (apart fromwhat could be deemed tokengestures) was once again left to the Tamil political organizations. However,therewas a notable difference on thisoccasion in the North.The intraparty contests, whichhad alwaysbeen a feature there since 1949 when the Federal Party (FP) was establishedby a breakawaygroup fromthe Tamil Congress(TC), was absent on this occasion.The new unity resulted from thealmostunanimousopposition of the major Tamil political leaders and organizationsto the 1972 Constitution, whichtheyfirmly believed accordedthe Tamils a secondclass citizenship status.Tamil grievances againstthe majoritySinhalese and its political leaders had long preceded the enactment community of thenew constitution, 13but the previousattempts to carry out a political struggle under one banner had founderedon personal differences overamongtheTamil leaders.The climatecreatedin 1972 effectively rode personalclashes and the Tamil United Front,which became the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) prior to the 1977 election, was born.What is also significant is thatthisnew umbrellaorganization united for the first time the Tamil political partiesin the Norh with the major trade union-cum-political party active among the Indian Tamils in the plantationsector.The importanceof this development shouldbe viewedin the lightof the increasing drifttowardsseparatism on the part of the Tamil people. Sentiments of separatism were much more powerfully articulated in the 1977 election than in previouselect tions. The SLFP, UNP, ULF, and the TULF were the major political the 1977 generalelections, but therewere also a host partiescontesting of minorpartiesand independentcandidateswho faced the electorate. As the analysisof the election resultswould reveal, the latterproved to be of less thanmarginalimportance. It is quite evidentthat all the different political partiescontinued in the to be consciousof caste,religious,and otherparochial interests selectionof theirrespective candidatesand in theircampaigning. This has alwaysbeen a featureof politics in Sri Lanka where consciousness "as in otherdemocraticcountries, a bewilderingconfusionof personalities, policy issues,parochial concerns,and loyalties and prejudices in the election campaign."'4Partymanifestos are interwined and proin this election; but in a climate where gramswere not unimportant
13 See K. M. de Silva, "Discriminationin Sri Lanka" in Case Studies in Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Foundation for the Study of Plural Societies, 1977), pp. 73-119. 14 Kearney,Politics of Ceylon, p. 149.

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therewas such a strongreactionagainstthe rulingparty,it is difficult to assessthe weightthesecarriedin the minds of the votersas against in poweror corruption suchissuesas competency excesses. Finally,it is worthwhile notingbriefly the impact the outcome of the Indian polls had on Sri Lanka. There were,of course,parallels betweenthe situationsin the two neighboring countries:the primeminin the isters of both nationshad governedunderemergency regulations yearsimmediately precedingthe electoral contests, while the sons of both had emergedto become the key figuresin the youth wings of their respectivepolitical parties. Anura Bandaranaike had, in fact, claimed that he and Sanjay Gandhi were "Asia's two rising sons," a claimwhichwas to haunt him duringthecampaign.Given theparallels, it is no surprise that the opposition,and especiallythe UNP, used Mrs. Gandhi's defeatas an example which should be followedby the local Indeed, the UNP, whichhad consciously looked towardsthe electorate. youth to lead its electoral contests, portrayedthe party leader, J. R. who could be comparedto Morarji as an elder statesmen Jayawardene, to note in this Desai, thenew Prime Ministerof India.15It is pertinent contextthat political partiesin Sri Lanka have alwayssoughtto focus attentionon theirrespectiveleaders in their campaigns; the leader's public image has-inevitably proved to be of crucial importancefor all the parties. The Results The 1977 polls saw the maintenanceof the remarkablerecord of in the national electoralcontests in Sri Lanka. highvoterparticipation With a turnoutof 85.8% (in contrastto 84.7% in the 1970 polls), the voterparticipation latestelectionmarkedthe highest since an electoral was introducedinto the island. This figure is ample testimony system to the heightenedpolitical partycompetitionthat was evident at the campaign stage itself. The national party preferences (see Table 2) reveal the success achievedby the UNP over its opponents-the SLFP and the ULF. In the past, the highestshare of the popular vote usually had been more or less equally sharedbetweenthe SLFP and the UNP, but on thisoccasion the UNP clearlyeclipsed the SLFP. The UNP received53.9% of the popular vote as against 31.2% for the SLFP; for the first time a political partywon an absolute majorityof the since independence, votesin a national election. The UNP won 139 seats,or 83.7% of all theseatswhichthepartycontested. This percentage comparesfavorably with the 70.2% seatswon by the UF in the 1970 general election. The figures forthe 1977 provincialpartypreferences (see Table 3)
15Riviresa, July 3, 1977.

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SRI LANKA'S 1977 ELECTION TABLE 2: National Party Preferences, 1970 and 1977 General Elections


Party UNP SLFP Marxist Partiesb FP TC TULF Minor Parties and Independents

1977 1970 Number Number Number Number Percent of of Percent of of Popular Seats Seats Popular Seats Seats Vote Contesteda Won Vote Contesteda Won 129 108 31 19 12 141 17 91 25 13 3 2 38.0 36.9 12.0 4.9 2.3 5.9 154 147 136

139 8 0

53.9 31.2 6.8


23 296

17 2

6.6 1.6

SOURCE: Data for 1970 from K. M. de Silva and Vijaya Samaraweera, T he Legislatures of Ceylon, 1833-1972: A Source-Book on Elections and Legislators (Unpublished mss.); data for 1977 computed from information in Ceylon Observer, July 24, 1977. a The number of seats for 1970 was 151 and for 1977, 168. There was no contest for one electorate in 1970 and the electoral contest for one constituencywas postponed in 1977. b Marxist parties for 1970 are LSSP and CP; for 1977, ULF.

show that,apart fromthe NorthernProvince,the UNP's political supover theisland; indeed,it receivedan absolute portwas well distributed The of thevotesin all but the two Tamil-speaking provinces. majority in the Sinhalese areas was consistent of theUNP's strength distribution are exwith its past performances. However,if the provincialfigures can be observed.Of developments aminedmoreclosely, someimportant 126 won with the totalof 154 candidateswhich the UNP put forward, had the edge over the The SLFP has traditionally an absolutemajority. ruralCentral,NorthCentral,and Uva Provinces, UNP in theprimarily but in the 1977 contestthe UNP was able to tilt the support there the UNP towardsit in a remarkablefashion. Equally importantly, shattered thevirtualmonopolyheld in the past by the Marxistsin the in the Westernand Sabaragamuva provinces clusterof constituencies and along the coastal belt. The UNP has alwayshad considerablesuccessin theconstituencies in the twomain citiesof Colombo and Kandy, areas had been weak. but its strength in theotherurban and semi-urban A furIn thiscontextits electoralwins over the ULF are noteworthy. therpertinent point needs to be made. The Marxistpartieshad tradivotes in these regions,especially from tionallyreceived caste-protest the Kardva,Saldgama and Durdva castes,against the UNP which had the highestrankthe reputationof being a Goyigama(conventionally ing caste) dominated political organization.The failure of a casteas a on thisoccasion can perhaps be interpreted vote to surface protest reflection of the successthe UNP has achieved in changingits public of Muslim supimage. Finally,it is relevantto observethereemergence

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port for the UNP. The polls in the past had revealed a gradual shift of Muslim supportfromthe UNP to the SLUP, but the 1977 general election marked a reversalof this trend; of the 11 Muslim members of the Muslim the areas in which thereis a concentration electedfrom population,10 were fromthe UNP and only one fromthe SLFP. that the SLUP had not The 1977 general election demonstrated only lost ground nationallybut also in areas in which it had traditionallyrelied for support.The rural vote, which had been ardently wooed by the SLFP fromthe beginningand which was generallyacknowledgedto favorthe party,failed it in 1977; in Uva Province the SLFP did not capture a single seat, while in the Central and North it won only three.Again, in areas where the muchCentralProvinces were introheralded land reformsof the Bandaranaike government forexample) which were expected to provinces, duced (in the interior The dismal to theSLFP, thepartyfaredno better. yieldpoliticalreturns than in the deof the SLFP was no betterdemonstrated performance fromthe last SLFP cabinet only feat of its senior parliamentarians: two (includingMrs. Bandaranaike) were returnedand both of these members affiliated with the SLFP who were werein facttheonlysitting in 1977. To take another indicator,one which was highsuccessful who were relightedin the local press,the two sittingSLFP members reducedmajorities. turnedwon with considerably It is clear that the UNP cut sharplyinto the electoralsupportof the latter.While the SLFP's the SLFP and the Marxists,particularly popular vote was reduced only by about 5%, the Marxistsupportwas when comparedto theirrespective perforreducedby nearlyone-half mancesin 1970. This loss of votesby the Marxistparties,it should be noted, took place despite a considerableincrease in the number of candidatessetup in 1977.The LSSP and theCP, as thedurableMarxist unchanged supportbase over the groups,had maintaineda relatively share of the their popular vote had graduallydeclined years,though the total In 1977,however, withthe steadyexpansionof the electorate. declinedso thateven thestalwarts votespolled by thetwopartiesgreatly enteredthe political arena in the early 1930s of the left-who had first returnedfromtheirconstiand who since then had been consistently tuenciesin the Southwest-weredefeatedin the 1977 election. The 1977 polls reemphasizedthe dominance of Tamil political in the Tamil-speakingareas. In the NorthernProvince organizations (85.1% Tamil in the 1971 Census) theTULF sweptthe board,winning and 68.7% of the popular vote. In the Eastern all theelectoralcontests racial mixture(41.2% Tamil, 33.5%, wherethereis a greater Province, Muslim, and 22.7% Sinhalese in 1971), the TULF achieved a more with27.1% limitedsuccess, winningonly3 seatsout of the 10 contested in the of thepopularvote.However,in all but one of the constituencies the provincein which the Tamils formedthe majoritycommunity, in the 1977 general The TULF's performance TULF was victorious.

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of what a further milestonein the emergence electionis undoubtedly There was one notA. J. Wilson has called "Tamil subnationalism."16 and thatwas the inabilityof the TULF-reprehowever, able failure, sentiments-togain thesupportof theTamilTamil nationalist senting speakingMuslims.On this occasion, the Muslims voted for the UNP. to make inroads into the Both the UNP and the SLFP have attempted that thisis a Tamil areas,but the 1977 polls once again demonstrated task. mostdifficult thatminorpartiesand indepenRecent studieshave demonstrated losing their importancein Sri Lanka's dents have been increasingly this trend. and the 1977 general election confirmed electoralsystem,17 was double the 1970 In 1977 the numberof candidatesin thiscategory declined.The minor but theirshareof the popular vote further figure, parties totallyfailed, and only two independentcandidateswere suc(one of theseis the leader of the Ceylon WorkersCongress-the cessful affiliated with the TULF-who was elected Indian Tamil organization in which constituency Nuwaraeliya-Maskeliya fromthe multi-member the Indian Tamils formed71.2% of the population). the "turnover pattern"in The 1977generalelectionalso confirmed again in Sri Lanka. Control of the government the partycompetition change to take place since 1952. changedhands, the seventhsuccessive of demonstration as a further The resultscan no doubt be interpreted but this should democracy, the viabilityof Sri Lanka's parliamentary not obscurethe challengesthe establishedpolitical order has received quartersover the years,the most recentbeing the 1971 fromdifferent much surely depends upon the capacity April Revolt.As forthe future, to solvethegraveeconomicand social problems of theUNP government facingthe country.
17 Calvin A. Woodward, "Sri Lanka's Electoral Experience: From Personal to

16 Wilson, Politics of Sri Lanka, p. 165.

1974/75,47:4, pp. 455-471. Party Politics," Pacific Affairs,

VIJAYA SAMARAWEERA is a Lecturer in History at Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, North Carolina.

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