Democracy for Dummies

There is much talk about democracy and rule of law in Sri Lanka these days. Self-appointed prophets of good governance preach endlessly about the ills of the former government, and about the seemingly god-given and NGO-funded mission they — these false prophets — have to democratize and civilize Sri Lanka.

Perusing through the Sri Lankan internet, twittersphere and blogosphere reveals a startling lack of knowledge about democracy, democratic norms and even the basics of what constitutes good governance. Not only are the general population woefully ignorant of these key concepts, but that ignorance allows the snake oil merchants from the NGO dens of Colombo to brazenly cover up the un-democractic and dictatorial actions of the present ruling regime. At several points during the election campaign, senior journalists and professors of law no less could be seen justifying and legitimizing the dictatorial threats of the Madman Sirisena, regarding, for example, who could or could not be prime minister.

So, this page has been created to explain some of the basics of the Sri Lankan political system, and clear up misconceptions about democracy in general, and how it applies to the Sri Lankan setting. The page does not aim to go deep into constitutional law, but to provider a basic backgrounder for Sri Lankans who clearly know very little.

This is a work in progress. Please leave a comment below or tweet to me @wayforwardnow if there is anything you think worth adding.


Sri Lanka is a democratic republic. As a democracy, it is a nation state in which the people choose their leaders. Being a republic, it has no king or emperor but rather an elected president who functions as the head of state. Sri Lanka’s presidency currently has a lot of powers.

The presidency pre-1977

After Sri Lanka’s transition to a republic in 1972, leaving behind the old dominion status that had existed from 1948, Sri Lanka’s head of state became the person who was elected to be president. From 1972 to 1977, this person was simply a figurehead who had no real powers. His job was basically to be there to be a ceremonial figure. The real power lay with the prime minister.

The presidency post-1977

With the arrival of Ranil’s dictatorial uncle, J.R. Jayawardane, at the apex of Sri Lankan politics, he used the UNP’s 5/6 majority in parliament to create a new constitution. In this new system, all powers of state were transferred to him as president, hereby known as the “executive president.” The prime minister became a figurehead, or ceremonial, instead. The president’s term under the 1977 Constitution was 6 years.

The electoral system

JRJ also changed the electoral system from the old, Westminster (British) first-past-the-post method (where each seat had a fixed MP, and only the candidate or party with the most votes got any reward) to a proportional representation system (where seats were allocated in proportion to the number of votes each party got in each district, along with a bonus number of seats for whichever party got the most votes). The purpose of this was to prevent the formation of a 2/3 majority ever again in the future, so that his constitution could never be changed, and so that the SLFP would never be able to form a strong government.

The presidency from 2010-2015

Mahinda Rajapaksa as the war-winning president obtained a huge mandate in the 2010 presidential poll and then, against all odds, obtained almost 2/3 of the seats in the parliament for his UPFA. Mahinda then got the 18th Amendment passed, which removed term limits for a president, meaning he, or anyone else, could contest an unlimited number of times for the office of president.

The presidency from 2015 to now

Elected on a “good governance” platform specifically against the 18th Amendment, the Sirisena-and-Ranil duo passed the 19th Amendment, which reinstated the 2-term limit of the past, and also shortened the presidency period from 6 years down to 5 years.

The prime minister

Under the 1972 and 1977 (current) constitutions, the prime minister is selected from the mass of MPs who were elected during the most recent general election. The wording is quite clear. The MP who can command the confidence of a majority of the MPs, becomes the prime minister. “Confidence” for all intents and purposes means that he can command the rest of the MPs of his party or alliance to vote how he wants in any debate and/or in passing bills, and to get those bills passed by having a majority of the house following him (i.e., 113 or more MPs, including himself).

Can the president choose the prime minister?


Can the president prevent someone he doesn’t like from being the prime minister, even if that person wins a general election?


The leader of the opposition

Similarly, in any democratic system, the “losing” side of the election also gets a leader: the leader of the opposition. For the last 20 years, with the UNP losing 29 elections in a row, Ranil was always chosen by his party to lead them in the parliament. Although it made no sense for them to have blind faith in this man, that was their problem, not Mahinda’s or Chandrika’s. And so Ranil was leader of the opposition as he commanded the support of the next largest group of MPs in the parliament after Mahinda’s UPFA. From the 1940s to today, it was not, is not, and will never be the job of the king, governor, president, or prime minister to decide who is the leader of the opposition.

General elections

As per the constitution, general elections could be held at any time during the term of a parliament. However, since the passage of the 19th Amendment, general elections can only be held in the last 6 months of a parliament’s 6 year term. However, the parliament can dissolve itself at any time earlier than this, through a two-thirds vote.

Once you’ve finished reading this, if you want more details for the topics covered above, and also an explanation of the system in the context of what’s going on currently in Sri Lanka, read Democracy for Dummies – Part 2.

3 thoughts on “Democracy for Dummies

  1. Pingback: Democracy for Dummies | THE WAY AHEAD FOR SRI LANKA

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