Sri Lanka’s current crisis of governance threatens to undermine the country’s democratic tradition of having periodic free and fair elections to choose a government under the provisions of the constitution. I highlight the term “provisions of the constitution” because elections that are held by rulers in an arbitrary manner in violation of the spirit if not the letter of the constitution to suit their own convenience are not democratic. From that perspective, both major political parties in Sri Lanka, UNP and the SLFP (now SLPP), have not been democratic on occasion in the past.
Sanctity of elections
The 1975-77 SLFP administration of Sirima Bandaranaike extended the life of parliament by two years from 1975 to 1977. Mrs. Bandaranaike ended her term of office in 1977 with one of the worst electoral defeats in Sri Lankan parliamentary history.
In 1982 J R Jayewardene got the parliament to pass the fourth amendment to the constitution and misused the provision of the constitution to hold a referendum instead of the regular election. The main motive was to preserve his super-majority in parliament with the 142 seats that the UNP held. (The present author who strongly supported Jayewardene’s economic reforms at that time publicly expressed his opposition to J R Jayewardene’s move in a Letter to the Editor in The Island published two days after the Referendum was officially announced on November 14, 1982.)
Some analysts believe that the disastrous ethnic violence that occurred in July 1983 and the set back to the progress of the country that followed including the JVP violence in the late 1980s had something to do with the referendum. That is plausible because the people were denied a parliamentary election to choose a government in 1982. That gave a plausible reason for the JVP to take to arms. It may also have encouraged the LTTE to resort to violence.
It is useful to recall the Anglo-Irish statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke’s saying “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Unfortunately our politicians appear not to know much history. Those who believe in democracy must respect the right to vote and the holding of elections in accordance with the constitution.
The Yaha Paalanaya government postponed local government elections and provincial council elections with impunity in the last three years.
The latest manifestation of that undemocratic practice in the current crisis is president Maithripala Sirisena’s readiness to ignore the constitution and call for an election prematurely when a majority in parliament want to continue the government at least until the 4.5 year minimum period that the constitution allows/requires is reached, and Mahinda Rajapaksa-led SLPP’s readiness to support the president’s unconstitutional idea.
The right to vote is a civil liberty. It is exercised in elections. This is perhaps the only right in a democracy that is truly equal because everybody, men and women, rich and poor, educated and not so educated, has only one vote each. In a country with a relatively large population who are poor and/or low income and less privileged in access to education, health, jobs etc. this is one tool that they can use to influence the policies and strategies of rulers to distribute the nation’s income and resources more equitably. It so happens that, historically, Sri Lanka is probably the world’s best example that illustrates the truth of that proposition.
Access to basic food, education and health are three of the most important services that all people need to improve quality of life. It is no accident of history that Sri Lanka has had subsidized basic food – first the rice ration at a subsidized price and later the Samurdhi grant – and provided state-funded education from kindergarten to university and tax-financed healthcare to people. These are policies that have had strong support from the electorate.
Sri Lanka caught the eye of economists and others about fifty years ago when analysts noticed that our country stood out among poor countries for its unusually high level of literacy and longevity. The World Bank published global data in 1978 for the first time that were reasonably comparable for different countries. Data in Table 1 below shows the situation for a sample of countries including Sri Lanka.
Table 1: Comparative Data on Social Welfare – Mid 1970s
GDP US $ 1976
at birth (years)
rate per 1000 live births 1975
rate 1974 (%)
Source: World Bank, World Development Report, 1978.
Sri Lanka had a per capita income of around $200 in the mid 1970s. This was a little higher in absolute terms than those of, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; about half of that of the Philippines and a very modest fraction (7.4% of that of Singapore’s and 2.5 % of USA’s) of the more developed countries. However, life expectancy at birth was 62% higher than that of Bangladesh, 36% higher than that of India and Pakistan and only about 3% to 6% lower than that of some of the world’s richest countries at that time. The infant mortality rate was less than half of the other South Asian countries cited. The adult literacy rate was double to triple the rate of other South Asian countries and exceeded that of Singapore. In the past forty to fifty years other poor countries have narrowed the gap with Sri Lanka on these basic indicators of human welfare. But the important point is Sri Lanka was so far ahead of other poor countries until about the year 2000.
Social welfare at risk
The explanation for the large social welfare gap that existed in the mid 1970s between Sri Lanka and other low-income (per capita income less than $750 in 1976) countries and how Sri Lanka was much closer to the richest countries (Per capita income of $6200 or more) in the world is complex. However, it is very plausible to believe that universal franchise and periodic elections that made the rulers answerable to the people played a major role in improving the quality of life of ordinary people. This is a very important lesson that Sri Lankans must take into account in the current political debate.
Just now the crisis is seen largely through partisan lenses such as UNP vs. SLPP or Wickremesinghe vs. Rajapaksa. Or who is better at building Mega Projects such as superhighways, massive harbors, international airports, and shiny high-rise buildings on land reclaimed from the sea to house financial centers. They may well be useful for the 21st century. But the lesson from our history in the past 88 years since universal franchise was introduced in 1931 is that we need a system of governance that is also responsive to the needs of ordinary people. That is at risk if we fail to resolve the current crisis to preserve constituitonal democracy and rule of law.