18 January, 2022


Sri Lanka, A Diminished Democracy

By Eran Wickramaratne

Eran Wickramaratne MP

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) is an association of Parliamentarians who are bound by their shared interests, respect for the rule of law and individual rights and freedoms, and the pursuit of the positive ideals of parliamentary democracy. The Association’s mission is to promote the advancement of parliamentary democracy by enhancing knowledge and understanding of democratic governance. The CPA consists of the Parliamentarians of the 54 states of the Commonwealth and many other smaller territories. The CPA has its roots in the Empire Parliamentary Association that was formed in 1911 which became the CPA in 1948 where all members share responsibility in the Association’s management.

It is to the CPA’s credit that their annual conference is currently being held in Sri Lanka, despite the country’s drift to an authoritarian style of governance. Many countries have drifted in and out of democratic governance over the past six decades. Some countries have been expelled from the Commonwealth and others have had their membership suspended for many reasons which  include conflict, genocide, fraudulent elections and the undermining of democracy.

The CPA’s declared mission is to advance parliamentary democracy by enhancing knowledge and understanding of democratic governance. Even though the degree of democracy in a state is a highly debatable and contentious issue, the Commonwealth has often been able to censure countries which have deviated from its ideals. No global association including the United Nations would be of any use unless the common values of humanity are upheld over the narrow objectives of a nation state. The CPA’s overarching objective is to strengthen parliamentary democracy rather than legitimize government behaviour.

Sri Lanka evolved into a parliamentary democracy at Independence in 1948, while it had practised universal adult suffrage since 1933. Multi-party elections, shared Cabinet responsibility and constitutional protection for minorities were the hallmark of Sri Lankan democracy. With the adoption of the Republican Constitution of 1978 and a powerful presidential system of governance, the balance of power between the Executive President and Parliament tilted in favour of the President. It was the beginning of the erosion of parliamentary democracy. In the Chamber of 225 members, there is less than a handful attending on a regular basis. While Parliamentarians cannot be excused for negligence of duty, the overriding reason for such neglect is the fact that parliament’s supremacy over the legislative process, as a check on executive power and public finance has diminished. Even though the Constitution gives Parliament control over finance, in practice, Parliament exercises little control. The weak oversight committees, the lack of a Parliamentary Budget Office, the inability to track expenditure by line and insufficient disclosure of financial information has made a mockery of the constitutional powers of Parliament over finance. The lack of a Right to Information Bill also leaves the public disempowered from obtaining financial information.

Despite the shift in power to the Executive President, there were a couple of significant checks and balances in the Constitution on the unbridled power of the President, who is immune from lawsuit in his private and public capacity. One such check on power was a two term limit on the Presidency. In democracies where there is an Executive Presidential System, there are term limits. A term is normally 4 to 5 years and an Executive President is limited to two terms.  Countries that have no term limits are normally one-party states or dictatorships. Some of the countries without term limits are Azerbaijan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, Belarus, Algeria and Burkina Faso.  Egypt and Libya also had no term limits for decades.

Sri Lanka had two terms of 6 years each. In 2010, a new amendment to the Constitution known as the 18th Amendment abolished the term limits which were the last check on the powerful executive Presidency. President Rajapaksa in the attempt to get Parliament to approve the amendment artificially created a two third majority in the legislature by encouraging crossovers from the opposition political parties to the government.  The 18th Amendment to the Constitution was rushed through as an urgent bill with no public debate. Legislators had access to the proposed 18th Amendment on the morning of the debate where it was adopted into law. The Sri Lanka Constitution does not permit post legislative review. The above stated sequence of events does not speak for the best traditions of democratic parliamentary governance. Sri Lanka has a democratic system of governance with diminished democracy.

The 18th Amendment also eliminated a Constitutional Council which was instituted to provide diverse parliamentary representation. The Constitutional Council then appointed the independent commissions for elections, public service, police, finance, anti-bribery and corruption amongst others. The Constitutional amendment gave the President ultimate power to make appointments to these commissions with the concession of consulting a parliamentary committee. As recent as last week elections were held without Election Commissioners being appointed to the weakened Election Commission.

In a recent lecture delivered in Colombo at the Bakeer Markar Commemoration, Wadah Khanfar, the former Director General of the Al Jazeera Network stated that the Arab Spring was a revolt against authoritarianism of rulers who often ruled in the guise of democracy co-opting the opposition in the process of its governance. The result was the suppression of people who for long years were duped with economic crumbs and the trappings of democracy. What has begun to sweep the Arab world is the indomitable spirit of democracy.

The Government-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation (LLRC) has widely documented the erosion of the democratic space and made recommendations for rectification.  The opposition has pledged its support to implement the recommendations contained in the LLRC report.  The government and opposition work together to make CPA objectives a success.  Therefore, we must work together to make Sri Lanka a vibrant parliamentary democracy.  Let us rise to our common calling – the advancement of parliamentary democracy.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    How true:
    “In a recent lecture delivered in Colombo at the Bakeer Markar Commemoration, Wadah Khanfar, the former Director General of the Al Jazeera Network stated that the Arab Spring was a revolt against authoritarianism of rulers who often ruled in the guise of democracy co-opting the opposition in the process of its governance. The result was the suppression of people who for long years were duped with economic crumbs and the trappings of democracy. What has begun to sweep the Arab world is the indomitable spirit of democracy”
    But the Indian rep said that SL does not have a democracy deficit. Is it an event where a guest cannot offend the host?

  • 0

    I was amused to hear the talk of Wahdah Kanfer at the Bakeer Markar Memorial Lecture at the new Sambuddha Buddhist Bldg at Havelock Road. Like most Arab speakers he failed to give sufficient credit to the US and its institutions that really set in motion the Arab Spring – an attempt to pull the Arabs from their medieval mindset and despotic ruling style. Predictably, he placed much of the blame of current Arab politico-economic realities engirely on the USA. It was wieredly funny listening to his comment “in Tahrir Square there were no attacks (verbal) on the USA” by which he gloated on the accomodative spirit of the Arab mobs. Kanfer did not tell the audience the very source of the Arab Spring Revolution was an Egyptian student, educated in IT in the USA who really set the world ablaze on Facebook/Twitter once the fruit-seller in Tunis committed suicide. He did not say the sweeping taste for freedom and democracy are all rooted in many young liberal Arabs studying in USA and the West. While Kanfer congratulated himself and the Arabs as having received the benefits of Republican democracy he might take note this “paradigm” of some aspects of the democratic feature – the focus of his address – is something Sri Lanka/Ceylon enjoyed from the late 1930s. One is pleased the Arabs are tasting this in the past year or two. It is hoped with education secured forcibly by people from reluctant Arab and Islamic despots people in that part of the world,both men and women, will be spared the troglodyte form of governance some of them are trying to impose on their people and the world through direct and other subtle means. Thanks must go to visionary Arab minds like Edward Said (the remarakble Christian Arab intellectual) who argued Francis Fukuyama’s thoughts in the “End of History” wherever educated men live the Republican form of governance will prevail.


  • 0

    With universal adult suffrage since 1933, sri lanka is unable to hold free and fair elections.
    During the recent elections there were nearly 280 violations of election laws.The state commited most of them.
    This, everyone seems to ignore.
    Even with a constitution giving dictatorial powers,if the citizens could vote freely without constraints,releif from autocratic governance is possible.
    But even this is denied.
    The future is bleak,as there cannot be ‘parliamentary democracy’.

  • 0

    Singapore developed because of the dictatorial and nationalist minded president Lee Kuan Yew. So was Malaysia under Mahathir. Sri Lanka having lost 30 years of development, in fact I should say 30 years of distruction of the economy, democracy and law and order, will find 100% democracy a luxury that would not support the need of the hour. I for one would prefer the current system where a coalition Govt of major opposition and minority parties are ruling along with a mildly dictatorial and nationalist minded President who is on the right track when it comes to economi development and non-alignment. However, the independent commissions to oversee vital areas as stipulated in the constitution should be allowed to operate without interfereance.

  • 0

    The CPA secretary general’s comment that Sri Lanka has no democracy deficit is laughable. This idiot has no right to make such a comment without knowing the real situation in Sri lanka. Does he know what the 18th amendment has done to the country’s democratic institutions? The CPA’s founding principles are being ignored by Sharma’s stupid and ill informed remarks about democracy in Sri Lanka and it has helped to bolster Rajapaksa’s autocratic rule in Sri Lanka.

  • 0

    Executive Presidency was dangerously manupulated by the UNP Government under JR Jayawardhana. UNP was no better under R.Premadasa . Ranil wickramasinghe though he was fortunately for Sri Lanka not a President but a Prime Minister under a weak President did not make the government of Sri Lanka strong to meet the forces of terror. Instead it gave into Prabhakaran. Even Chandrika Kumaratunga despite the Executive power she had did not face terrorism resolutely as a strong President but was seeking means to satisfy Prabhakaran with weak political moves. All that is enough to understand that in developing countries with peculiar problems they may have to face from time to time democracy introduced by the British is no more a system that helps unless it is adopted to meet different situations in developing nations.

    Democracy in a developing country like SL should be adopted to overpower other forces to develop the country and bring the communites together without giving into communal dissention.

    Why should SL follow a foreign system of government making it a sacrosant political system ? Our own way of adopting democracy has been beneficial to the Country only after the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapakse. We have today a President who is not using his excutive powers to the detriment of the country. There is no guarantee that the President that follows him will use the executive powers the same way. Therefore it is in the interest of Sri Lanka to have the President Mahinda Rajapakse with the democratic political system he practices to the maximum in the interest of the country for several more terms in office.

  • 0

    I cannot but fully agree with reader Sam. That our system failed despite our gaining Universal Sufferage in the early ’30s is an indictment against our men/women who rule. This is not a fault of the system per se. I might add, inspite the massive frauds in the Sept 08
    PC elections the TNA saw over 80% of the Tamils in the District voting for it. The official results may give the Govt 200,000 votes and the TNA 193,000+ but the people of the District, and, indeed, many in the coungry know the unenviable reputation of the rogue regime. What more this blog has a piece where Ambassador Robert Blake, not me, who comments “Nobody believes the Rajapakses anymore” And, that, mind you, is years ago. Since then the culture and system must have blossomed to “sublime” levels.


    • 0

      Last week there was a report that Deputy Minister Vinayagamoorthy
      alias KRUNA had told an official at the US embassy in Colombo that
      Pillayan only got 6,000 votes in the Eastern PC elections.

      (2)There was also some delay in announcing the results of Baticalo district, which raised suspicion of tampering with votes taking place.

      (3) Also many Tamil voters did not go the polling booths. either due to them being threatened OR simply they were not interested in voting.
      So there is the possibility that their votes were dumped in to make Pillyan elected, that too with most number of preferential votes.
      Wonder what the Election Commissioer and the Monitoring NGOs have been doing to stop this.

      If the claim by Karuna is true, then the outcome would have been quite different. TNA would have got 12 seats and UPFA only 11 seats. TNA would then have been given the bonus 2 seats thereby would have been eligible to form the administration.

      Even Sambanthan had openly told President (in reply to President
      congratulating TNA for getting second place) that if elections were
      held properly, TNA would have got the first place.

  • 0

    Eran Wickramaratne has been ..[Edited out]

    vibrant democracies do not attack another sovereign nation with false intelligence.

    Its diminished in Sri lanka but is it Vibrant ??
    Di[Edited out]

    Part of this comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy

  • 0

    Sri Lanka is a ‘Democracy’ where the written Constitution is flagrantly violated, by not implementing the provissions enshrined. Then how can the State, take to task a citizen for violating the Constitution, when the biggest Violater of the Constitution is the State itself? If the State under the pretext of dealing with Terrorism violates the Rights of it’s citizen, why can not the citizen act in similar fashion in dealing with the State? Anything and everything is acceptable in a society where there is no Law and Order. What is prevelant today is State Anarchy. I was quite amused when the recent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association made the announcement that they were happy about the progress of Democracy in the country. How ironic for a Delegation representing Democracy in this world to sweep under the carpet the violations committed on it’s citizen not necessarily being terrorist LTTE. If this is what Democracy is, it is about time we gave serious thought and hounded all these bloody ROGUES who help each other to survive on the sweat and blood of the masses.

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