1 June, 2023


Is Sri Lanka A Democratic Country?

By Rashika Saman Kumari Abesinghe – 

Rashika Abesinghe

Critical analysis of the democratic consolidation in Sri Lanka

The term “Democracy”has a long history, which interconnected with the Greek civilization. Because, it originated from two Greek words which were “Demos”(People) and “Kratos” (Rule). The simple meaning is the people’s rule. Their two major types of democracy which were direct democracy and representative democracy. Currently under the democratic framework, there are direct democracies. On current world the democratic states are having different form of constitutional structures such as Presidentialism, Parliamentarianism, and Semi Presidentialism & hybrid systems. For this study the author mainly selects Sri Lanka as a case study to explore the democratic status of that country. Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is a multi-cultural island country which is located in the South Asian Sub Continent. There are several specific reasons behind the selection of Sri Lanka for this study. First, Sri Lanka was a British colony from 1833-1948 and their legislative structure mainly influenced by Great Britain. Most interestingly from 1972-1978 Sri Lanka had a parliamentary system and then in 1978 with constitutional reforms, it converted into a presidential system. Sri Lanka experienced two youth insurrections. In 1971 the first youth insurrection was led by “Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna” against the Sri Lankan government. This can define as a youth struggle against the social injustice. In order to influence and weaken the Sri Lankan government the insurgents took control of the several villages and cities. But this was an unsuccessful struggle and this youth group was defeated by the Sri Lankan governmental forces in 1971 June. Again in 1987 – 1989 the second youth insurrection occurred and it also was led by the “Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna” against the Sri Lankan government. This insurrection was fairly aggressive and violent than the first one. In order to pressurize the government the insurgents conducted attacks against civilians and military. But this also was an unsuccessful effort and it is still difficult to measure the number of lives & value of properties which Sri Lanka lost with those insurrections. Most significantly Sri Lanka is a multicultural country. Not only youth insurrections Sri Lanka also was having a 30 years of ethnic conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil militant group which advocated a separate Tamil ethnic state in the North Eastern Part of the Country. This civil war finished on 16th May 2009 after the Sri Lankan army forces defeated the LTTE terrorist group. Unfortunately, still it is difficult to measure the economic, social, cultural cost which Sri Lanka had to pay with this LTTE terrorism problem. But according to general estimate, around 75,000 civilians had killed since 1983 and 2,90,000 civilians had reported as displaced persons (UN News Center: 2009).

Currently, Sri Lanka is being vulnerable to the ISIS activities. There is a tendency of Muslim Youth in engaging in ISIS terrorist activities in Sri Lanka. On last Easter Sunday (21st April 2019) there was an ISIS attack in Sri Lanka aiming three Catholic churches and three luxury hotels around the Colombo city. As a result of this attack around 259 civilians were killed and all the suicide bombers were well educated Sri Lankan Muslim youths whom belonged to the wealthy families. The Sri Lankan society is facing struggles continuously. It seems like Sri Lankan society is pressurized by a number of social, political, cultural & economical dimensions. This makes a confusion about the survival of the democratic framework of the country. Therefore the author mainly efforts to finalize whether Sri Lanka is a democratic country or Not? while analyzing the nature of its legislative framework & Human Rights 

Characteristics of a democratic state

While analyses the characteristics of a democratic state it is evident that there is no universal agreed characteristics of democracy. The definition is different in person to person, state to state and institution to institution.

Terry Karl,

“Modern democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of the elected representatives” 

Robert Dhal,

“It is the responsiveness of citizens (who are in theory “Political equals of rulers”) that is the key characteristic of the democracy”.

Thus, overall legal equality, political freedom, the rule of law consider as the most important characteristics of a democratic state. According to the United States Department of State (1776) democracy has major six characteristics such as citizen rule, Majority rule & minority rights, individual rights, free and fair elections, citizen participation and cooperation & compromise (Rosanne Tomyn: 2018)

Sri Lankan legislature and democracy (discussion from the beginning to present)

Sri Lanka was having an ancient history which mainly influenced by India. Sri Lanka had nine successive kingdoms. While in the era of last Sri Lankan kingdom “Kandy” the coastal areas governed by the Portuguese from 1597- 1658. The Portuguese could not continue their domination in Sri Lankan coastal areas with the intervention of the Dutch. The Dutch government was able to rule those coastal areas till 1815 when the whole country (including Kandian Kingdom & Coastal Areas) became a British Colony. In the era of the British, they introduced their legislative structure to Sri Lanka. Through 1833 Colebrooke Commission reforms, British introduced the executive and the legislative council to Sri Lanka. Most importantly, they introduced a single rule system which combined both upcountry and the coastal areas and for the first time divided the country into five provinces under this reform. The most important feature of this 1833 Colebrook is the introduction of the legislative council. Before the introduction of this legislative council the Governor bared a conclusive power in decision making. The commission expected to reduce the Governor’s super powers and distribute power among ethnic representatives. So, the British introduced the ethnic representation scheme into legislature under this reform. There were 15 members of the 1833 legislative council. Nine of them were official members and another 6 members considered as unofficial members. In case of these 6 unofficial members 3 members were European representatives and the other 3 members represented the diverse ethnic groups in the country which were Sinhala, Tamil & Burger. 

Under the Crew – Mcallum constitution the number of legislative council members was increased. As usual, it divided into11 official members and 10 unofficial members. Out of 10 unofficial members 6 were selected through nominations. Another 4 members consisted with 2 Europeans, 1 Burger and 1 educated Sri Lankan. But Sri Lankans did not satisfy with the 1912 reforms. As a result of a continuous struggle the 1920 constitutional reforms introduced by the British. There were 37 members in the legislature this time. Most significantly, unofficial members became the majority of the legislature first time. Because out of that 37 representatives 14 were official members and 23 were unofficial members. 07 unofficial members were selected under the nominations of the Governor. Another 16 members were selected under the provincial representative system. 

Under the 1924 constitutional reforms the number of legislative council members was increased up to 49. According to that reform 12 official members and 37 unofficial members were appointed. Out of these 37 unofficial members 8 members were appointed under the nominations of the Governor. Then in 1931 Donoughmore constitution established in Sri Lanka. There were 61 members of the 1931 state council. 50 members directly selected through the public vote base on provincial representation scheme. There were 3 state officers named as state secretary, financial secretary & legal secretary whom appointed under the Governor’s nominations. Also, another 8 members in the state council whom also appointed under the nominations of the Governor. Under this constitutional reform all Sri Lankan male & female who were above 21 years were received franchise without considering their wealth or educational level. This can be recognized as a very important step in the story of Sri Lankan democratic consolidation.

Before the Donoughmore reforms there was a limited relationship between the legislature and executive. But under this reform the state council received both executive and legislative powers. Most significantly the state council was divided into seven committees which were, 

Home Affairs


Local administration



Transport and Common work

Labor industry and commerce 

Under 1947 Soulbury constitution the legislature consisted with senate & Court of members of Parliament. There were 30 members in the Senate. 15 members were appointed under the representational scheme and other 15 members were appointed by the Governor under the instructions of the Prime-Minister. The court by members of parliament consisted with 101 members. Out of that 95 members selected through the electoral system and another 6 were appointed by the Governor with the instructions of Prime Minister in order to represent the minorities whom do not receive opportunity to represent the parliament. The duration of this parliament was 5 years. In between the Soulbury reforms Sri Lanka received the independence from the Britain on 04th February 1948. Under this constitution the Prime Minister was the head of the government. Meanwhile, the Soulbury constitution excited there was the introduction of the political party system into the country political structure. It leaded Sri Lanka to have a multi- party system which also can define as a positive step towards the democratic framework of the country. 

The Soulbury constitution continued from 1948-1972. There was a confusion among the independence of the country under this constitution as the queen of Britain was considered as the leader of Sri Lanka. Therefore, meanwhile the Soulbury constitution, there was an emerging necessity of a new constitution. Aiming 1970 election a political alliance had created under the contribution of the Sri Lankan freedom party, The Lanka Samasamaja Party and Communist Party. One of their pre electoral promise was the establishment of a new independent constitution. When the “Samagi Peramuna” (United Alliance) won the 1972 election and Hon. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the prime minister, they took the necessary actions for the new constitution introduction.  There are several important factors in the 1972 which was emphasized the survival of democracy in the country political system. Especially under this constitution disconnected all the constitutional bonding with the British Government. And also Sri Lanka was established as a “unitary republic” under this constitution. According to the 1972 constitution the legislature was named as the “National State Council”. The legislature consisted with the people’s legislature power as it consisted with the citizen representatives whom directly selected through franchise. The “National State Council” consisted with 168 representatives and duration was 6 years. In the 1977 election the united national party won the 140 seats out of 168 of the “National State Council”. Thus, this new government introduced the executive presidential system in the Sri Lankan constitutional framework. Still Sri Lanka is having this constitution. The 1978 Parliament consist with 225 representatives. There 196 members were directly selected through the franchise and other 29 selected under the scheme of nominations. The major goal of this nomination scheme was to gather the contribution from the skilful professionals who are not traditional politicians. Apart from the legislature current Sri Lanka has Provincial Councils & Local governments where people select their representatives directly. According to the 1978 constitution the age limit to use their voting rights was changed as 18 years. 

One of the significant universal characteristic of a democratic state was people have the opportunity to select their representatives directly. While Consider the perspective of Sri Lanka it is evident that Sri Lankan citizen have direct authority to select their representatives. It strengthens the power of the citizens. Also under the 1978 constitution the official Name of Sri Lanka changed as the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”. While considering the legislative evaluation of Sri Lanka we can recognize that currently Sri Lanka is having positive characteristics towards a democratic state. 

But under this legislative structure also we can recognize several challenges which against to the survival of democracy in this island. According to the Sri Lankan election commission report 2019 there are 70 recognized registered political parties in Sri Lanka. But unfortunately the government power is continuously changing in between the two main political parties and only around 10 political parties are actively participating with the current political wave of the country. This tendency can be recognized as a challenge against the democratic consolidation of Sri Lanka. Another major problem is that there is a limited representative opportunities for the female and young candidates in this system. In Sri Lanka since 1931women have represented the all successive parliaments to date. Hon. Sirimavo Bandaranaike defined as the world’s first female head of the government (Prime Minister) and the hon. Chandrika Bandaranaike was one of the remarkable presidents in Sri Lankan political history. But mostly the whole political system of the country is governed by men. So, women’s representation in the parliament is very low. As an example, in current Sri Lankan parliament there only have 13 female representatives and other 212 are male representatives. Although Sri Lanka has 51% women, their participation in local governance as well as national parliament is 5% in total (Aboobacker Rameez: 2018). Therefor the government introduced the 25% quota system for women in local parliaments and it failed to achieve desired objectives. According to the Sri Lankan political culture, it is evident that the individual women who do not have any political family background cannot easily join with politics. Interestingly, most of the women who represent parliament or local governance belong to a political family. Especially many of them came to politics after the loss of their father or husband to fill that position. 

Even Sirimavo Bandaranaike & Chandrika Bandaranaike engaged with Sri Lankan politics after the assassinations of their husbands who were the renowned politicians of Sri Lankan. Also the aggressive & corrupt political culture has become a major challenge for women to engage with the country politics too. This also can be recognized as a grave threat towards the Sri Lankan democratic consolidation. Family politics can also recognize as a huge ethical challenge towards the democracy in Sri Lanka. 

On the other side electoral violence and & corruptions have become a challenge to secure the democracy in Sri Lanka. Sometimes the politicians use to buy citizens vote for money or food packet or alcohol. Not only that, but also continuously uneducated, unsuitable people are electing to the Parliament, provincial councils & local governments. The tragedy is last Sri Lankan parliament had 94 MPs who even did not pass the ordinary level examination and there only 25 graduates in the whole parliament (M.O.A De Soysa: 2017). This creates a confusion whether Sri Lankan people select the right people to represent themselves. 

Democracy & Human Rights 

While considering the evolution of human rights condition of Sri Lanka we can recognize 1972 constitution as a conclusive step there. Under the statement of 18 of the 1972 constitution for the first time Sri Lankans received the basic human rights and comprehensive freedom. It also facilitated the functioning of law mentioning that the protection of law and other legal affairs should be completely impartial. Especially it mentioned that “a person’s life, freedom or protection should not be harmed if otherwise the law”. Meanwhile, this constitution confirmed the right of free thinking, conscience and religion, peaceful gathering & expressing opinions as fundamental rights. 

1978 constitution consist with a human rights chapter, which mainly influenced by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The chapter 13 of the 1978 constitution defined the basic human rights which Sri Lankan citizens receive under the constitution as follows. 

Sentence 10 – Freedom of thoughts, conscience and religion

Sentence 11 – Freedom from torture 

Sentence 12 – Right to equality 

Sentence 13- Freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention and punishment and prohibition of retroactive penal legislation. 

Sentence 14 – Freedom of speech, assembly, association, movements 

The sentence 15 consists with the restrictions on fundamental rights and sentence 17 explains the remedy for the infringement of fundamental rights by executive actions.  But most interestingly “Right for life” is not recognized as a basic human right under the Sri Lankan constitution. 

The human rights chapter of the Sri Lankan constitution can be recognized as a very positive action towards the democratic society where every person receives fundamental rights under the rule of law.  Also the establishment of Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission (1996 Act No 21) can define as a huge inspiration to establish a human rights culture through securing and promoting human rights for all citizens. This positive tendency of human rights development had directly affected to the survival of democracy in the Sri Lankan community. 


In the story of democracy, there was a long & continuous development in Sri Lankan legislative structure. While considering the evolution of Sri Lankan legislature structure, it is evident that the people have complete authority to select their representatives under the 1978 constitution. It emphasized the power of the citizens. But it seems that still Sri Lankan citizens do not realize their true power to influence for the whole legislature,its representatives and for the whole system. Therefore, it is very important to implement the community awareness about the electoral rights and people’s power. Also, it is essential to expand the opportunities for women & youth to engage with Sri Lankan politics representing parliament, Provincial Councils and the Local Governments. The tendency of “Family Politics” should be abolished and there should be a chance for each qualified & interested individuals to represent their communities without any barrier. 

While considering the human rights condition of Sri Lanka it is evident that Sri Lanka has taken the positive actions towards the democracy & individual rights. But it is very important to expand the section of “Right for equality”. Because, as Sri Lanka is a multicultural country, it is important to expand & define this right perfectly. 

Overall, it is true that Sri Lanka has established as a democratic country after a long history of constitutional reforms. But there are numerous challenges against that survival of the democracy here. Therefore, it is important to recognize these issues and take necessary actions by the responsible authorities. 

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Rashika Saman Kumari Abesinghe

    “Is Sri Lanka A Democratic Country?”

    Certainly not.
    Rather than looking at what is in the constitution you should go to far end of provinces and see for yourself how equality of rights being applied to different people.

    ” Sentence 14 – Freedom of speech, assembly, association, movements “

    Here is an example, this is what happened in Jaffna when uni students less than of them were minding their own business and chatting among themselves police came abused them, accused them of being LTTE supporters/members and ordered them to disperse without giving any reason. Then came more police, army and more army, ………….


    When there is over manning within police and armed forces they have to be seen to be working, doing some worthwhile work, hence the lazy bumps go to schools, unis to pick a fight with students. This is how democracy is being constructed in this island and how armed forces help recruit for the non existent LTTE.

  • 1

    The following two sentences caught my attention:
    * In 1971 the first youth insurrection was led by “Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna” against the Sri Lankan government. This can define as a youth struggle against the social injustice.
    * Sri Lanka also was having a 30 years of ethnic conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil militant group which advocated a separate Tamil ethnic state in the North Eastern Part of the Country.
    Our national problem centres around the discrepant manner in which we describe both.
    _ The JVP insurrection was AGAINST social injustice.
    _ The LTTE ethnic struggle was AGAINST ????
    As long as we remain biased in describing the LTTE struggle we are going to remain a failed state.

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