January 21, 2017, 4:53 pm
by Kamal Nissanka
The Liberal Party completed its 30th year on January 19, 2017. The party is the brain child of the late Dr Chanaka Amaratunga who shared the initial idea with Mr. Rohan Edirisinha (Senior Lecturer in Law) and the late Mr Asitha Perera, former national list member of parliament.
The precursor to the party was the Council of Liberal Democracy (CLD) that was formed in March 1981. The joint conveners of the council were Dr Amaratunga, Mr Edirisinha and Mr Perera.
The aims of the council were to study, discuss and analyze political issues both national and international, to promote liberal democracy in domestic and foreign affairs, and the organize debates, discussions, public lectures and study groups on relevant and interesting topics.
The council issued its first statement condemning the 1981 communal riots. Its major proactive role took place against the referendum of December 1982 which postponed the general election that was to be held in that year. The referendum marked the cut off line between democracy and autocracy and thereafter CLD was critical of J.R.Jayewardene policies. It condemned the 1983 communal violence and began to think of an alternative constitutional framework in order to resolve the national question.
Though the Council of Liberal Democracy functioned as a non-governmental organization from 1981 to 1987, Dr Amaratunga thought that the ideas of liberalism could be better propagated through a political party committed to liberalism and liberal democracy. Further, he was of the view that a party could engage in electoral politics that would create close relations with the general public. Dr Rajiva Wijesinha who was the President of the CLD in 1987 opposed the idea of forming the party but later reluctantly accepted the post of president of the party although he was not in the island at the inauguration.
Though the party was formed on January 19, 1987, the CLD continued its activities. In 1987 the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung (Foundation), a German organization committed to spreading of liberalism worldwide assisted the CLD to launch a series of seminars and workshops on constitutional reforms for Sri Lanka. Almost all political intellectuals of different colors in Sri Lanka participated enthusiastically in these seminars and workshops. The party was able to gain membership of the Liberal International in 1987.
The Liberal Party contested the first ever provincial council elections in the Western Province and won two seats in the Gampaha district due to the assistance given by Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) supporters. SLFP boycotted the PC election.
The Liberal Party in its strategy to get a parliamentary seat worked with the aim of forming an alliance with the SLFP under Ms Sirima Bandaranaike and supported the SLFP in the General Election that followed. However the SLFP was unsuccessful at election held in 1988.
The untimely death of Dr.Amaratunga on August 1, 1996 was a major blow to the party. By unanimous decision the party’s national committee appointed Dr.Rajiva Wijesinha as its leader and Mr.Harim Pieris as Secretary in 1998.
It formed an alliance with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress for the 1994 General Election and under the agreement the party was offered the national seat the SLMC won. Later between 1997 and 1999 the party contested several provincial council elections with no success.
In 1999 the party decided to contest the presidential election and Dr Rajiva Wijesinha was prepared to accept the challenge. The idea was highly mooted by Mr Kamal Nissanka, then the Deputy Secretary General.
Though Dr Wijesinha did not have a big campaign he fared well among the losers. In the subsequent annual congress in 2000 Mr. Kamal Nissanka, a political scientist and Attorney at Law was elected as secretary general. He was an ardent believer of taking the party to grass roots.
In 2005, Nissanka as secretary of the Liberal Party was able to form an informal alliance with Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, the presidential candidate of the UPFA. In 2007 Nissanka was elected leader of the party as Dr Wijesinha held high government offfice under the Rajapaksa administration. The Liberal Party supported Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign and extended its support at the 2010 presidential election.
After having successful discussions with the Rajapaksa leadership Mr Nissanka was able to bargain a national seat for the party and party decided that it should be given to Dr.Rajiva Wijesinha.
Mr Nissanka as leader was critical of the 18thamendment to the constitution and impeachment process against then CJ, Ms Shirani Bandaranayake.
In 2014, Mr.Kamal Nissanka and Mr.Ananda Stephen (then Deputy Secretary General ) with other civil society organizations joined the effort to find a common candidate to run against President Rajapaksa. Rajiva quit the Rajapaksa administration and joined hands with Mr Maithripala Sirisena . The Liberal Party is among the 47 organizations who signed an agreement with Mr Maithripala Sirisena, the common candidate, at Viharamahadevi Park.
While Dr Wijesinha was on the UPFA national list at the 2015 general election, the Liberal Party contested the election on its own. This led to a conflict of interests and policies and after the elections Dr Wijesinha resigned from the party though the party considered him to have vacated membership.
Dr Rajiva Wijesinha’s departure from the party created a great vacuum in the ideological sphere as he was our leading liberal theoretician after the death of Dr Chanaka Amaratunga.
The party is now in search of a committed full time leader who is competent to understand both classical and modern liberalism with deep rooted national issues and new trends in world affairs.
As at present party is not in any formal alliance and engages in issue based politics while discussing with other political parties and civil society organizations.
(The writer is the Secretary General of the Liberal Party)