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 its formation in 1978 to 1994.
The UNP is a democratic socialist party, although it is generally seen as more conservative than the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, favouring a more neo-liberal market-oriented economy. The UNP is comparatively to the right and is part of the International Democrat Union.
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 ana 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 Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act of 1949. These measures were intended primarily to undermine the Left electorally.
In 1952 Prime Minister Senanayake died from 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. By this time 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 under 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 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.” After Dudley’s death in 1973, 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 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. Jayewardene opened up the economy and revolutionized the entire outlook of the country. He introduced a new constitution (which incidentally first called the country a 'Democratic Socialist' republic) which made the presidency an executive post with sweeping powers, and shifted from the premiership to the presidency in 1978. In 1979, President Jayawardene introduced the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act to quell a low-key armed insurrection in the Northern Province by separatist Tamil rebels.
On the economic front, free-market policies initially destroyed the nascent electronic and motor spares industries, as well as the long-established tea macinery 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. However, rising unprecedented inflation generally made 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. In 1982 the government 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 were leading 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 Rajarata Rifles. The government 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 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 were “disappeared” by the armed forces and death squads and many 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. Meanwhile Jayewardene signed an Indo-Sri Lankan pact with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, which later resulted in Gandhi's assassination.
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 initiated many housing projects and poverty alleviation programs that made him popular among grassroots level. In 1993 Premadasa was assassinated by separatist LTTE suicide cadres while proceeding in a May Day rally. By this time the people were longing for a change due to allegations of inefficiency and corruption against the UNP government. In the 1994 election, the SLFP 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.
By 2001 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 notabaly former Kumaratunga confidants, Prof. G.L. Peris, 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 "cooperative" 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 final solution to the ethnic conflict.
The UNP government maintained strict fiscal discipline and market-friendly policies, which led to a resurgence in the economy leading to 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. All this led to unprecedented economic growth reaching almost 6% at the end of 2003; inflation too was at an all time low of less than 2%. 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 Patriotic National Movement (Deesha Hithaishi Jathika Viyaparaya) 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 evangelistic 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 in 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 in 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.
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.
Presently Wickramasinghe faces significant pressure to step down as the Leader of the UNP.
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.