It was in July 1960, after the Parliamentary elections held that year, that Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first woman prime minister. It was only subsequently that leaders like Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Mrs. Golda Meir and Benazir Bhutto led their countries as prime ministers. Mrs.B headed a 15-member cabinet which included C.P. De Silva [...]


It was a top secret: How Mrs. B’s Govt. was defeated by a single vote in 1964


Sirimavo Bandaranaike

It was in July 1960, after the Parliamentary elections held that year, that Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first woman prime minister. It was only subsequently that leaders like Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Mrs. Golda Meir and Benazir Bhutto led their countries as prime ministers. Mrs.B headed a 15-member cabinet which included C.P. De Silva as Minister of Lands, Dr. N.M. Perera as Minister of Finance, Felix Dias Bandaranaike as Minister of Agriculture, T.B. Ilangaratne as the Minister of Trade and Maithripala Senanayake as the Leader of the House and Minister of Rural and Industrial Development. It was indeed a formidable Government and a strong Cabinet.

But things began to change four years later. Parliament was prorogued in 1964 and a new session began around November that year. After the new session was ceremonially opened by Governor-General William Gopallawa, as was the custom following the Westminster model we had adopted, a motion was moved to thank him for opening Parliament and delivering what is called the speech from the throne. Then a two-day debate, called the Throne Speech debate, follows.

After the Leader of the House, moved the motion to thank the Governor-General, Dr. W. Dahanayake from the opposition proposed an amendment reading: “But regret that the people have no confidence in this government as it has miserably failed to solve the pressing problems of the people such as unemployment, high cost of living and housing”

The debate was due to end on December 3. That very morning Speaker Hugh Fernando summoned me to his chambers and told me of his inability to be present in the House that evening to preside over the sitting. I strongly urged him to be present, saying that it was a very important day with a crucial vote to be taken. My efforts for over half an hour proved to be of no avail. The speaker insisted that he had some very urgent private business and would not be present. I realised that I would have to get another Government member (Deputy Speaker D.A. Rajapaksa) to preside over the session.

As the proceedings were going on, by mid-evening a story began circulating in the lobbies of a defection of a group of government MPs. It was a very well kept secret till then, but soon it transpired that J.R. Jayewardene, the Leader of the Opposition, was leading a coup in Parliament to defeat the government on the vote on the Throne Speech due that evening. Soon it was known that some UNP MPs who had been abroad had been recalled to be present in the House that day. It was all very hush hush. They included Messrs. E.L. Senanayake who had been in London; Paris Perera also away on holiday abroad and a few others — all of whom suddenly showed up in the lobbies.

The main drama broke soon after the House resumed at 4.30 p.m. after that evening’s tea break when Mr. C.P. de Silva, Minister of Land, Irrigation and Power walked into the Well of the House, solemnly bowed to the chair and instead of moving to his seat in the Government front bench as usual walked to the opposition side of the House and took his seat there. A few other Members of the Government loyal to him followed taking their places on the opposition benches. They included Indrasena de Zoysa and Edmund Wijesuriya. It was no longer a rumour circulating in the lobbies. As many as 17 members of the government party had defected to sit with the opposition.

By 7 p.m. the Throne Speech Debate had ended and a vote was due to be taken. Following recognised Parliamentary procedure, we had to put the amendment moved by Dr. Dahanayake to the House first. The division bells were rung for three minutes. A division by name was called for after all were seated. Secretary-General Sam Wijesinha and I started calling out the names of the members starting with the Prime Minister and the Government ministers and then the members in alphabetical order. As the motion with the amendment read that the House has no confidence in the Government, all Government members shouted ‘No’ and then the Opposition members cried “Aye”. Then we called out each Member’s name and marked ‘Aye’ or ‘No’ against each name as appropriate on the provided voting list. The numbers were added up and the result, on a slip of paper, was handed to the Deputy Speaker Rajapaksa in the chair. The ‘Ayes’ had it – 74 voting for and 73 against.

I recall Ministers Maithripala Senanayake and Badi-ud-din Mahmud, seated on the Government frontbench, forcefully exhorting “You have counted wrong. Recount the votes.” My heart missed more than a beat realising that any mistake would cost us our jobs. We carefully counted the votes again, making doubly sure that there was no mistake with an ‘Aye’ marked in a ‘No’ column or any miscount. After the recount we forwarded the result to the presiding officer who had announced the result of the division to the House confirming that result. But I reassured Government members hoping for a miracle that following correct parliamentary procedure, the amended motion would once again be put to the House.

Thus the Government had the opportunity of getting one or two members to come into the chamber and vote with them if they were available or willing to do so. So the division bells were rung for three more minutes and once again the names of MPs were called out for them to register their votes. Since the amended motion read that the House had lost its confidence in the Government, Government MPs had to vote ‘No’ this time. The result was identical 74 “Ayes” (The House had no confidence in the Government) and 73 ‘Noes’ saying it did. The Government had lost by a single vote.

I must add here that though the Government had lost, and that by one vote, one reason for that was that a couple of Government MPs like Finance Minister N.M. Perera who was at a World Bank meeting in Washington and Mr. Bernard Soysa were abroad blissfully unaware that Opposition Leader J.R. Jayewardene was engineering a parliamentary coup. Keeping the secret leak proof ensured that the government did not have the opportunity of getting them down in time to face a make or break vote.

Mrs. Bandaranaike was made well aware of the constitutional position by her advisers and she could have very easily summoned Parliament to meet on a future date and called for a vote of confidence in the government which she and the Government could well have won. But the great lady having suffered a defeat in the House dissolved Parliament two weeks later on 17 December and called an election.

A general election followed in March 1965 and the UNP were voted to power with Mr. Dudley Senanayake being sworn in as Prime Minister on 25 March, 1965 for the fourth time in his life. His Cabinet of 16 was sworn in which included J.R. Jayewardene as Minister of State, M.D. Banda as Minister of Agriculture, U.B. Wanninayake as Minister of Finance, and C.P. de Silva as Minister of Lands.

Five years later in March 1970, the sixth Parliament was dissolved.

(The writer was a Secretary-General of Parliament.)

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