At Independence from British rule in 1948 Sri Lanka inherited under the “Soulbury” Constitution a British-style parliamentary system of government. The British monarch was the nominal head of state. A cabinet led by a prime minister wielded executive power. In 1972 under a new Republican Constitution a President with nominal powers replaced the British monarch as head of state. More importantly, the new First Republican Constitution strengthened the powers of the executive at the expense of the legislature. It lacked the checks and balances of the Soulbury Constitution, and diminished whatever separation of powers that existed under the Soulbury Constitution.
The Second Republican Constitution established a Presidency with a full range of executive powers. A Prime Minister and a cabinet of ministers chosen from among members of parliament functioned under the president. Because the system closely resembled the French system, it was described as the “Gaullist System of Asia.”
The architect of the new constitution J R Jayewardene who was elected prime minster in November 1977 and became the first president under the new Second Republican Constitution of 1978 publicly boasted that the only thing the president could not do was to make a man and woman and vice versa. He justified the powers of the presidency claiming that it would help take quick and efficient decisions to accelerate economic development in the country. It is a fact that economic growth accelerated under Jayewardene who was elected president in 1982 for a second term and held office until 1989. However, the good economic numbers owe more to his economic reforms that liberalized the highly state-regulated system that he inherited than to the decision-making powers of the presidency.
Starting from Jayewardene in 1978 six separate individuals, including Maithripala Sirisena who was elected on January 8th 2015, have held the presidency of Sri Lanka. From the inception of the presidency, critics of the system predicted that the powers of the presidency had the potential to be misused or abused. This proved to be especially true under Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-2014) who was first elected in November 2005 in a closely fought election that went 50.3% to 48.4% in his favor. He won reelection in 2010, 57.9% to 40.2%. His comfortable win in 2010 reflected the enormous popularity he enjoyed among the Sinhalese voters, who constituted 75% of the electorate, following the 2009 military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that US and several other countries designated as a terrorist organization.
President Rajapaksa saw his second term that started in 2010 as a great success. The war had ended. Annual GDP growth averaged about 7%, the official unemployment rate was less than 5%, and the rate of inflation was modest. Annual arrival of tourists increased by 129% from 654,000 in 2010 to 1,500,000 in 2014. He began to describe Sri Lanka as the “Wonder of Asia.’
Rajapaksa’s critics saw things very differently. They described him as an “imperial” president who disregarded the basic norms of democracy and good governance. Rajapaksa amended the constitution to remove the two-term limit on any one individual being president and to allow the president virtually untrammelled powers to make high-level appointments to almost every key branch of the government including the judiciary. Separation of power was almost non-existent with both the legislature and the higher judiciary becoming a rubber stamp for whatever the president wished to do. This situation led to the callous disregard for human rights, suppression of media freedom and undermining of the rule of law. Rajapaksa’s family members were appointed to positions of power. He and two of his brothers effectively controlled two thirds of the annual government budget. Another brother served as the Speaker of the House. The president, family members and their close supporters were accused of massive corruption.
Rajapaksa called for a presidential election on January 8th 2015 with two years of his second six-year term still remaining. Being an experienced politician he would have felt that the opposition criticism was making an impression on public opinion. He took a chance in the hope that he would be able to save the day and make it for a third term. He lost the January 8th election 47.6% to 51.3%.
The new president Maithripala Sirisena has launched what he has called a One-Hundred Day Program under a coalition government that brings together the two major poltical parties of the country, United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and a few other minor parties. One major item on the agenda is to reform the presidency. Some who support the government want the office to be reduced to a ceremonial position with power concentrated in parliament and a cabinet led by a prime minster chosen from among those who are members of parliament. Others, including president Sirisena envisage a president who will be head of state, minister of defense and have a few other limited executive powers. A National Advisory Council consisting of leaders of all the parties represented in parliament and a few representatives of civil society will take a final decision. In the third week of April 2015 the Constitution will be amended to give effect to these changes.
The experience of Sri Lanka raises two important questions of general interest. First, why did a country that had a fairly well functioning parliamentary democracy opt for a presidential system that gradually morphed into something that was authoritarian if not dictatorial? Second, what explains the decision that Sri Lanka’s voters took on January 8th 2015 to reverse direction?
There is more than one answer to the first question. First, Sri Lanka has a history of over 2,500 years. But Sri Lanka has known democracy only in the last 85 years. Before that absolute monarchs and western imperial governments (1505-1948) ruled the country. Thus democratic traditions are relatively new to the country. For example, no poltical party practices internal democracy. The party hierarchy with little public input selects presidential candidates. Civil society is relatively weak and the state has had a tradition of bullying them into submission, especially in more recent years.
Second, democratic institutions in the country are fragile. The legislature often bows to the executive branch, thereby weakening separation of powers. The independence of the public service and the judiciary has been eroded over time. Media freedom is limited. State media supports the party in power and governments often intimidate the private media.
Third, many believe that there is a tradeoff between strong government and economic development. Voters are often told that a “strong” government is essential for development. J R Jayewardene justified the establishment of the presidential system invoking this argument. Rajapaksa made the same argument.
The second question we raised was why the Sri Lankan electorate decided to reject President Rajapaksa’s authoritarian regime and vote for a candidate that promised to roll back the powers of the presidency? Voters have multiple reasons for voting out a government and electing a new one. Opinion polls clearly indicated that about 50% of the voters considered bribery and corruption a “very serious” problem and anther 30% “somewhat of a problem.” The “high cost of living” and “insufficient income to live” were the only other issues that were on par with the bribery and corruption issue. Not all voters made a connection between bribery and corruption and unsatisfactory economic conditions at the household level. But many did. There is reason to believe that the relatively high level of general education was one important factor that helped make the connection. Only 1% of the Sri Lankan electorate has not attended school. About 34% have a high school diploma (12 years) or higher level of education and 40% have completed ten years of school. The availability of information from multiple sources including social media to make an accurate assessment of the merits and demerits of the competing candidates also appears to have played an important role.