Tag Archives: Sri Lanka

Piyadasa Edirisuriya – The rise and the grand fall of Mahinda Rajapaksa

This is a guest post by Piyadasa Edirisuriya from Monash Business School at Monash University. It is based on his recent article in Asian Survey

Mahinda Rajapaksha, former President of Sri Lanka became a member of parliament in 1970 as the youngest member of the parliament at that time. Rajapaksha climbed to the very top by becoming the President of Sri Lanka in 2005. However, during his presidency, many blamed the Rajapaksha regime for corruptions, nepotism and human rights violations. When Rajapaksha contested the presidency for the first time, he won 50.29% of the vote compared to his rival Ranil Wickramasinghe who received 48.43%. Following his election, he established his power all over the country by a number of ways. In the 2010 presidential election, Rajapaksha obtained 57.88% of the vote compared to the common opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka (an army commander who survived suicide an LTTE attack and fought the war to the end) who won only 40.15% of the vote. The significant number of votes obtained by Rajapaksha was mainly due to the war victory against the LTTE. Throughout his political life, Rajapaksha had an appeal for the majority of Sinhala people who live in rural parts of the country.

The 2010 election victory made Rajapaksha more powerful and popular than ever as he won by a significant margin. This win gave him more confidence to abuse power in a substantial way. He promoted himself as ‘the liberator of nation from terrorism’ and systematically began to supress anybody who challenged his position. He started this strategy by arresting his onetime army commander and presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka. In fact, General Fonseka was the military commander who defeated the LTTE militarily. General Fonseka’s arrest was brutal as well as very quick. When the general public and some leading Buddhist monks attempted to protest against this arrest, Rajapaksha took swift actions to stop such protests.

With these victories in hand, Rajapaksha’s authority also grew because of the economic progress the country achieved during his time. It is evident from the Sri Lanka’s Central Bank Reports that the Rajapaksha’s period is one of the noteworthy growth for the country. Since 2001 per capita income GDP of Sri Lanka has been increasing gradually. In 2001, it was just US$841 and by 2013 it had increased to US$3,280. A significant improvement came in 2010 where it increased from US$2,057 in 2009 to US$2,400 in just one year.

Irrespective of economic growth, over the years Rajapaksha’s presidency was subject to many domestic and international criticisms. He appointed the largest Cabinet of Ministers in the world. In his first government (2005) there were 51 ministers and 29 deputy minsters. In 2007, Rajapaksha reshuffled the Cabinet and appointed even more people as ministers and deputy ministers. There were now 85 ministers and 20 deputy minsters. There were new ministers appointed by Rajapaksha whenever someone from the opposition crossed the floor to support the government. Most of these defections from the opposition were encouraged by Rajapaksha offering generous cabinet portfolios. (It is interesting to see that the current government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena also has 90 people as cabinet ministers, state ministers and deputy ministers.)

Another notable feature of the Rajapaksha administration was the offer of lucrative parliamentary, government and overseas portfolios to his family members. One of the most powerful figures was Rajapaksha’s younger brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who was the Secretary of Defence in addition to some other positions. A retired army colonel, he was one of the main figures who directed the military campaigned against the LTTE until it was defeated in 2009. After retiring from the army, Gotabhaya left Sri Lanka to live in the United States and became a US citizen. When Rajapaksha became the President, Gotabhaya returned to Sri Lanka and was given the powerful position of the Secretary to the Defence portfolio. There was a bomb attack on Gotabhaya when he was travelling with security escorts in December 2006 when a suicide bomber of the LTTE tried to ram an explosive-laden three-wheeler into the vehicle in which the Defence Secretary was in. The LTTE’s so called Black Tiger attack did not kill Gotabhaya. He survived miraculously.

During Rajapaksha’s time, a number of his Cabinet and non-Cabinet ministers as well as member of parliaments were reported for corruption, irregularities, unnecessary political interferences, breaking rules, laws and regulations and unruly behaviour. However, Rajapaksha never took serious disciplinary action against his fellow politicians. When the media commenced reporting such abuses by politicians things went bad to worse.  While banning a number of electronic media organisations who were critical of his government, Rajapaksha used government media organisations in his propaganda campaign to attack his opponents.

During the Rajapaksha era, the independence of judiciary in Sri Lanka was a controversial issue. Among many issues, the removal of the Chief Justice by the Parliament (with Rajapaksha’s approval) was the most controversial.

The beginning of Rajapaksha’s fall could be linked to the change of the constitution by the Sri Lankan Parliament that allowed the President to contest the presidential election any number of times. The previous constitution of Sri Lanka limited the re-election of President to 2 times. Under the eighteenth amendment to the constitution of Sri Lanka passed by the parliament on the 8th September 2010, the sentence that mentioned ‘the limit of the re-election of the President’ in the original constitution passed in the 1978 was removed. This change was designed to allow Rajapaksha to keep on contesting for the Presidency for as long as he wished.

Another important reason for Rajapaksha’s demise was his superstitious nature. Calling a presidential election 2 years early on the 8th January, 2015 was purely based on astrologers’ predictions. This particular day was selected based on advice given by his personal astrologers. Rajapaksha could have easily be in the Presidency for 2 more years without any trouble. Irrespective of being a devoted Buddhist, one month before the 2015 presidential election, Rajapaksha went to South India where he offered worship at the famous Hindu hill shrine of Lord Venkateswara. All these activities showed an overreliance on astrology and religion that contributed partly to his demise. It is alleged that Rajapaksha was indirectly supporting extreme Buddhist organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). BBS was promoting anti-Muslim ideologies in the country and was behind the riots against Muslims in 2014. This caused many Muslims to vote against Rajapaksha in the 2015 presidential election. In fact, the majority of Muslims and Tamils voted against Rajapaksha during the 2015 Presidential election.

After the 2015 presidential election defeat, many believed that Rajapaksha had reached the end of his political career. However, he was not ready to accept the defeat. By using his close friends in the parliament he wanted to show that he was still a force to be reckoned with. Just before the parliamentary election in August 2015, he encouraged his allies to start an island-wide campaign asking new leaders of the SLFP to bring him back to politics. The new leader (President Maithripala Sirisena) initially announced that he was not going to allow Rajapaksha to contest the general election, but he could not resist the pressure from his own party members. As a result, Rajapaksha was elected from the Kurunagala District and is now a member of parliament. His son also won from the Hambantota District.

Rajapaksha was the first Sri Lankan President to lose power in an election. In addition, Rajapaksha is the first President in the country to be a mere member of parliament after ruling the country for two consecutive periods. This demonstrates that he has not given up hope. In the future, he may be able to run the show directly or indirectly once again. He has his own parliamentary group called “Joint Opposition” and has plans to establish a new political party. Once it is created, he may become the leader again and keep doing what he planned many years ago. The growing unpopularity of the current regime has become a blessing in disguise for Rajapaksha and sooner or later he will be the ‘king’ again.

Stanley W. Samarasinghe – The Sri Lankan Presidency: A Report Card for the First Quarter

Sri Lanka’s president Maithripala Sirisena will complete one fourth of his six-year term of office in June 2016. He won the presidency in January 2015 as the candidate of a broad coalition. He polled 51.3% of the vote as against his rival and the then incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 47.6%. Most importantly Sirisena had a true national mandate garnering the vote of about 70% of the ethnic and religious minorities (30% of the population) and about 45% of the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority (70%). There was a high degree of optimism that the Sirisena presidency would usher in a new era for the country in, among other things, ethnic reconciliation, peace building, respect for the rule of law, good governance, and economic prosperity. The Chinese who built a very close relationship with Rajapaksa appear to have backed him while Sri Lanka’s most important neighbor India and western powers appear to have backed Sirisena. This is an opportune time to take stock of the president’s successes and failures and review needed course correction to meet the high expectations that his supporters both at home abroad had of him.

The office of presidency of Sri Lanka is currently at a crossroads for more than one reason.  First, the presidential election of January 2015 and the parliamentary elections that followed in August produced a coalition government of necessity between the two main poltical parties, United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), that have been traditional rivals for sixty five years. The coalition in turn has led to an informal power sharing arrangement between President Sirisena (SLFP) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP). In strict constitutional terms the executive president is all-powerful. In the past, typically, the prime ministers have been little more than figureheads under the executive presidential system. But it is not so today. The two men share power.

Second, while the 19th amendment to the constitution (April 2015) diluted the powers of the executive presidency, Sirisena yet retains significant powers in several areas. He is the minister of defense.  He has a major say in making key state sector appointments. The public also expects him to use the presidential bully pulpit and give moral leadership to some less tangible but very important activities such as ethnic reconciliation and nation building. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is the economic czar under the power sharing arrangement. There are good practical reasons for this division of labor. Sirisena who entered parliament in 1989 has held cabinet office since 1997 with a short break between 2001-2004. However, he does not have much of a track record in economic management. He also does not have international connections that are needed to obtain foreign assistance that Sri Lanka badly needs now. Wickremesinghe has those strengths.

Third, Sirisena is now battling the former president Rajapaksa to retain the leadership of the SLFP. That has become his current priority realizing the fact that if he loses the battle he has practically no political future.

Fourth, Sri Lanka has embarked on making a new constitution – the fourth in its 68-year post-independence history – that keeps Sirisena preoccupied. Parliament will act as a constitutional assembly to draft the new constitution. The future of the executive presidency is at stake. People witnessed the abuse of power of the presidency under Rajapaksa (2006-2014). Many of the voters who supported Sirisena do not wish to see the return of an imperial presidency that Rajapaksa tried to create. At this point in time it is likely that the executive presidency will be retained but with changes. What is uncertain is how power would be divided between a president that is elected directly by the voters and a prime minister who is also elected by the voters as a member of parliament. Sirisena will have an important say in the final outcome.

Politically Sirisena has been testing his strength against Rajapaksa over the control of the SLFP. As the formal leader of the party Sirisena organized his “official” May Day rally on May 01st in the southern port city of Galle.  Rajapaksa headed a rival rally in Colombo. If attendance is used as the metric to measure public support it appears that there was not much to choose between the two. In general Sirisena has thus far held his own against his former leader partly by using his presidential powers and state resources at his disposal to induce members of parliament and others to back him. The appointment of a large number of ministers is a good example. As of today there are 47 cabinet ministers, 20 state ministers and 25 deputy ministers that together account for 59% of government MPs.

Sirisena has also been reasonably successful in making the UNP-SLFP collation work. Opinions vary on the personal relationship that Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have. Some believe that there is a “cold war” between the two. The theory is that Sirisena would strengthen his grip on the SLFP and then try to oust Wickremesinghe to form a government of his own. However, others claim that the two men get along reasonably well perhaps because they need each other to keep their common enemy Rajapaksa from making a comeback. As long as the present balance of power – 106 UNP members and about 50 Sirisena wing SLFP members – in the 225 member strong parliament continues the president and the prime minister need each other for political survival.

The president’s record in other areas of governance is, at best, mixed. This record is partly determined by his low-key style of governance. A much needed era of ethnic reconciliation was conspicuous by its absence after the twenty five year old ethnic civil war ended in May 2009.  While there is no evidence of ethnic violence remerging under Sirisena, there has been no vibrant movement towards ethnic reconciliation either. President Sirisena represented a predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist electorate in the North Central Province in parliament and has no known record of working for ethnic harmony before 2015. As president he talks about ethnic harmony.  But he has failed to use the resources of his office in any bold or creative manner to promote ethnic reconciliation. However, Sirisena alone cannot be blamed for this situation. It takes two to tango. The Tamil poltical leadership in the north has also not shown the leadership that is needed to find creative and lasting solution to promote ethnic reconciliation.

In the 2015 presidential election Sirisena benefitted greatly from his promise to promote good governance known in local Sinhalese parlance as Yaha Paalanaya. His actions have not matched his rhetoric. Several individuals that the president has appointed to senior positions in government do not have the requisite qualifications. Such appointments appear to be mostly self-serving and smell of nepotism.

At the time of assuming office Sirisena (and Wickremesinghe) enjoyed a great deal of goodwill from a broad section of the electorate. While Rajapaksa’s support was largely Sinhalese Buddhist and semi-urban and rural, Sirisena won support from every ethnic group (Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors), all major religious groups (Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims), urban and rural, rich and poor and the more educated as well as the less educated. He won a genuine national mandate. Unfortunately Sirisena (and Wickremesinghe) have so far failed to make full use of that opportunity. For 2014, the last year of the Rajapaksa administration, Freedom House awarded Sri Lanka 5 (1 is the best and 7 is the worst) for Poltical Rights and 4 for civil liberties and described the country as “Partly Free.” Under Sirisena the numbers were 5 and 5 for 2015 and 4 and 4 in 2016 with the “Partly Free Status” remaining unchanged.

Public opinion in Sri Lanka more or less validates the assessment of Freedom House. The more educated and largely urban voters that supported Sirisena openly express disappointment at perceived growing corruption. A massive foreign debt that the government finds difficult to service can be blamed on Rajapaksa’s reckless borrowing. But responsibility for incompetent handling of the 2015 and 2016 budgets has to be borne by the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe administration. Lack of visible signs of economic development has been a disappointment to all. The current leadership has so far failed to deliver on its economic promises. For example, the 2016 budget allocated Rs 21,000m ($145m) for small rural development projects island-wide. One would have expected Sirisena who comes from a rural background to have taken a special interest in this project. Nearly five month of the year have elapsed and not one penny has been spent. Sirisena’s presidency is in need of a major course correction.

Sri Lanka – President Sirisena’s First Year Ends With Mixed Results

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena celebrated one year in office on January 8th. He was elected on a platform that promised to deliver, among other things, good governance, lower prices for food and other consumer essentials, economic development, and more jobs. He formed an interim administration that was followed by a parliamentary election in August. Since the August election Sirisena heads a “national unity” government that consists of the United National Party (UNP) that won 106 seats in the 225 strong parliament and about half of the members of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) that won 95 seats. Sirisena heads the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that is the principal constituent party of the UPFA.


In the first year of Sirisena’s tenure, his major achievement was in the field of good governance. The 19th amendment to the constitution that he managed to get approved in parliament with 215 of the 225 members voting for it helped establish a Constitutional Council that in turn has established ten independent commissions to oversee the police, public service, human rights, bribery or corruption, elections, delimitation of electoral boundaries, government auditing, financing of provincial councils, university education, and national procurement.

Under the Sirisena administration media freedom that was severely limited during the Rajapaksa regime has been restored. There are no more security forces or unidentified gangs that came in white vans that bear no number plates to pick up critics of the administration.

The president and members of his government have been criticized for allowing nepotism that was rampant under the previous administration to creep in. Sirisena appointed his brother to head Sri Lanka Telecom, one of the largest state-owned enterprises in the country. Some diplomatic appointments are being given to individuals who are unqualified for the positions that they have taken.

New Constitution

Sirisena, with the support of his Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, this month got parliamentary approval to form a Constitutional Assembly that will consist of all 225 members of parliament to discuss and write a new constitution for the country. The announced main goal of the exercise is to produce a constitution that abolishes the current executive presidency and brings back the prime ministerial system of government that Sri Lanka had before 1978 that is accountable to parliament. No strict timeframe has been established to complete the task. It is expected that the new constitution will become operational only at the end of the term of office of president Sirisena.


Sirisena’s national unity government can be seen as a political marriage that lacks political cohesion. Sirisena’s SLFP and Wickamasinghe’s UNP are traditional rivals and have somewhat different political orientations. The former is more Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist. The latter is more liberal democratic. The local government elections that were due at the end of last year would have posed a serious challenge to both parties that have to satisfy their local level political aspirants. The elections were postponed to April 2016 and now there are signs that they may not be held at all this year. That buys time for Sirisena and Wickramasinghe to maintain a united front at the national level.

The 19th amendment to the constitution does not allow parliament to be dissolved for 4.5 years from the date of election. There is speculation that Sirisena might attempt to form a government of his own with a member of the SLFP as the prime minister. However, this would be possible only if the president is able to persuade at least about twenty UNP members of parliament to crossover to his camp.

It is in the interest of Sirisena and Wickramasinghe to keep the national unity government. Recent opinion polls suggest that Sirisena has the support of around 50% of the electorate with Wickramasinghe coming closely behind. If they break ranks, it may open a window of opportunity for the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to make a political comeback. It is unlikely that it would be in the long-term political interest of Sirisena and Wickramasinghe to make way for a such a development.

Economic Issues

The major challenge that Sirisena’s government is facing is economic. Opinion polls clearly show that the high and rising cost of living is at the top of the people’s agenda. People are also concerned about jobs and development. The electorate appreciated the former president Rajapaksa mainly for two things. The first was defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and ending the 30-year-old civil war. The second was his high profile development projects. Many voters criticize the new administration for stopping Rajapaksa’s mega projects and for failing to get the economy moving.

Wickramasinghe and not Sirisena is the man considered to be in charge of the economy. However, things have so far not gone too well on that front. The 2016 budget presented to parliament in November was poorly conceived and provoked an adverse reaction from several quarters including key sections of government employees. The government had to withdraw several major tax proposals designed to reduce the budget deficit. The deficit was originally estimated to be 5.9% of GDP but after the withdrawal of some tax proposals and new commitments to increase government spending it is expected to rise to well above 6.0%

Earlier this month Wickramasinghe invited billionaire financier George Soros, Noble Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and several other development experts assembled by the Harvard Center for International Development to come to Sri Lanka for a two-day Sri Lanka Economic Forum. Speaking at the Forum Soros warned Sri Lanka not to be too optimistic about raising resources abroad for development in the current somewhat discouraging global economic and financial climate. Even if foreign finance is available Sri Lanka’s development effort is severely constrained by, among other things, a weak bureaucracy and poor physical infrastructure. Even more importantly, Sirisena and Wickramasinghe have failed to work out an effective method to mobilize local human and other resources to produce quick results that the voters anxiously want to see.

Sri Lanka – President Moves to Abolish the Executive Presidency

Between 1947 and 1977 Sri Lanka had a prime ministerial form of government that resembled the Westminster model. In 1977 the then newly elected prime minister J R Jayewardene using his two-thirds majority in parliament introduced an executive presidency that came to be described as the “Gaullist System” of Asia. Under the constitutional provisions enacted, Prime Minister Jayawardane himself assumed the office of executive president without calling for a presidential election. In the first ever all-island presidential election held in 1982 he was reelected and held office until his second term ended in 1988. The constitution mandated a two-term limit on the presidency. After Jayewardene five others have held the office including the present incumbent Maithripala Sirisena who was elected in January 2015.

Jayewardene justified the executive presidency on the grounds that a powerful executive was essential to take quick and decisive decisions to accelerate Sri Lanka’s economic growth. Critics of the presidency saw it as an authoritarian office that over-centralized power and undermined Sri Lanka’s democracy. For sure Sri Lanka’s economy has performed relatively quite well in the past 35 years. In 1977 the per capita GDP was US $294. By 1997 it had more than doubled to $800 moving up the country from “low-income” to “lower-middle” income category in World Bank classification. In 2014 the per capita GDP was $3,625. While cause and effect in this kind of relationship is hard to determine, for sure there is an association between the two. More importantly critics saw in the executive presidency an increasingly authoritarian trend that posed a threat to Sri Lanka’s democracy. This reality reached its high point under the fourth executive president Mahinda Rajapaksa (2006-2014). In 2001 under the 17th amendment to the constitution parliament unanimously voted for constitutional changes that reduced the powers of the executive presidency. Rajapaksa was elected to office for a second term in 2010 after he militarily defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The latter fought the government for over 25 years to establish an independent state in the north and east one-third of the island. Exploiting the military victory that made him a hero, especially among the 75% Sinhalese majority, in 2010 Rajapaksa succeed in getting parliament to pass the 18th amendment to the Constitution that removed the two-term limit of office and also overrode the provisions of the 17th amendment making the office of president more powerful than ever.

In January this year Rajapaksa lost the presidential election to Maithripala Sirisena. The latter promised to abolish the executive presidency and also limit his presidency to one term of five years. Two of his predecessors, Rajapaksa and Chandrika Kumaratunga (1994-2005) who promised to abolish the office failed to do so.

The present Sri Lanka administration is a “national” unity government that is a coalition of the country’s two main political groups. The first is the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and United People Freedom Front (UPFA) that President Sirisena leads. The second, is the United National Party (UNP) that Prime Minister Rani Wickramasinghe leads. Together they command more than two-thirds of seats in parliament that permits them to amend or change the constitution. In a speech in Colombo on Tuesday November 17 Sirisena noted that the executive presidency in the “wrong hands” has become a “dangerous tool” and the “root cause of unprecedented corruption and breakdown of rule of law.” Many Sri Lankan voters would agree with Sirisena’s observation. Embarrassingly, he himself has provided proof for his assertion by appointing one of his siblings as the chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom, one of the largest corporations in the country. The new chairman has been publicly accused of preparing to buy an Indian-owned phone company operating in Sri Lanka at an inflated price.

Sirisena took the first steps to deliver on his promise to curtail the powers of the presidency when his government passed the 19th amendment to the constitution in April this year that overrode the 18th amendment, took away some of the presidential powers and more or less restored the 17th amendment that provided for the the establishment of a Constitutional Council that is responsible for establishing a group of independent commissions such as the Human Rights Commission, Elections Commission, Public Service Commission, Police Commission and a Commission to Investigate Allegation of Bribery or Corruption.

Sirisena has four more years of his first term of office. It appears that his plan is to abolish the executive presidency at the end of his term and have an “Executive” Prime Minister. It is not clear at this stage how that position would differ from the office of prime minister of the British type that Sri Lanka had from 1947 to 1977. But what is certain is that it would be less powerful than the presidency. A committee that prime minster Wickramasinghe is to head will formulate the proposed constitutional amendments in the coming few weeks.

There is speculation that Sirisena who earlier hinted that he would retire from active politics when his presidential term ends might change his mind and remain in politics seeking the office of prime minister.


Sri Lanka – President Grapples with International and Local Challenges

Following his election to the presidency on January 07th 2015 Maithripala Sirisena governed the country for over six months under an interim government.

The August 17th parliamentary election did not give a clear-cut victory to a single political party. The United National Party (UNP) that was mainly responsible for Sirisena’s victory in January won 106 seats, seven short of an absolute majority of 113 in the 225 strong parliament. UNP’s main rival United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) that the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa led secured 95 seats and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) 16.

This situation gave Sirisena and his main ally UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe room to maneuver to come up with what they have described as a “national” government. In effect it is a coalition of the UNP and a significant segment of the UPFA. About half of the elected members of the UPFA chose to remain in the opposition benches under the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership. However, Sirisena appointed the leader of the TNA Rajavarothiam Sampanthan as the as the Leader of the Opposition ignoring the protestation of UPFA members in the opposition. Sirisena’s action at once denied his former leader Rajapaksa the powers and privileges that the Leader of the Opposition enjoys, and at the same time gained him praise from other quarters for signaling to the Tamil community that he was ready to welcome the Tamils as active participants in the poltical process.


The term “national government” would have been more apt if the TNA had been a part of the government. Be that as it may, even with two parties Sirisena had the unenviable task of making everybody happy with ministerial portfolios to make his new coalition work. Sirisena in his campaign criticized Rajapaksa for having a large government of 106 members of ministerial and deputy ministerial rank and promised a cabinet of no more than 30. His new government has 88 members with 47 in the cabinet, 19 state ministers and 22 deputy ministers. There is a possibility that an additional 22 may be appointed as District Ministers. The numbers reflect sheer political expediency. To make matters worse some of the ministerial functions have been allocated ignoring the need for efficiency of management of government affairs. For example, the Ministry of Highways and the Ministry of Higher Education have been allocated to one minister. There is another minister that does not have single government department or agency to look after.


Sirisena and his government had to devote much of the month of September to the Thirteenth Session of the UN Human Rights Council that was convened in Geneva and the Report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka (OISL).  The report can be traced back to a resolution that was originally presented to the Council in 2009 calling for an investigation of alleged human rights violations and war crimes committed during the last phase of the civil war between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Mahinda Rajapaksa administration strongly opposed the resolution that had the backing of the USA and EU countries. Similar resolutions were tabled in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and the OISL was the final outcome of the process. The UN Human Rights Commissioner presenting the Report last month in Geneva referred to “findings of a most serious nature” in the Report and supported its recommendation for a “hybrid” investigative mechanism that combines international and Sri Lankan personnel to inquire into any possible human rights violations and crimes committed during the last phase of the war. Former president Rajapaksa and his supporters have rejected the report outright calling its findings and criticism to be baseless and the proposed hybrid mechanism a violation of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The Sirisena administration took a more conciliatory view and agreed to have a domestic inquiry with some international input. The idea was to satisfy the international community while thwarting the criticism of the opposition. Sri Lanka signed on as a cosponsor of a resolution that was unanimously adopted by the UNHR Council last week that would set up the prosed mechanism and conduct the inquiry.

New York

President Sirisena participated in the UN General Assembly sessions last month. Although much of the negotiations between Sri Lanka on the one side and Geneva and the main sponsors of the resolution, most notably USA and UK, on the other took place through the office of the prime minister Sirisena’s visit to New York was perfectly timed for domestic consumption. He was given a hero’s welcome on his return home from New York as the man who “saved” the country from international condemnation and restored its due place in the comity of nations. The only blot in an otherwise successful diplomatic foray was Sirisena taking along his 18 year old son to New York apparently at state expense and accommodating him as a part of his delegation when the young man had no official status. Mahinda Rajapaksa drew a lot of flack for favoring his family in similar ways and this lapse on the part of Sirisena reminded voters that the new administration is perfectly capable of repeating the mistakes of the past that Sirisena criticized a few month ago in his campaign.


The government’s strategy appears to be getting its international relations sorted out so that it could embark on a sustained development program at home with the support of the international community. Sirisena visited Delhi last February. Prime Minster Wickremesinghe followed him with a visit to Delhi in September. The two countries generally have had cordial relations. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen to see the full implementation of devolution of power to the Tamil areas under the 13th amendment to the constitution of Sri Lanka that was enacted in 1987 at the insistence of Delhi. Sri Lanka’s prime minister has publicly assured that it would be done under what he calls the framework of a “unitary” state. The two countries have agreed to deepen economic relations. However, the much-delayed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between the two countries remained stalled and awaits renegotiation. The Sri Lankan business community has some reservations because it fears that cheap Indian goods and labor could swamp the Sri Lankan market. Sri Lanka is not keen on an Indian proposal to have a land route connecting the two countries across the Palk Strait.


At the time of this writing Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is in Tokyo. The hope is that Japan that was the major donor to Sri Lanka before China took that place about eight years ago would come back with an offer of substantial assistance to the Sirisena administration.

Governance Capacity

Sirisena’s promise of good governance played a significant role in his successive election victories this year. But events now clearly show that he is finding it much harder to deliver on his promise. We noted above that the national government was more the result of poltical expediency than an innovative step to solve the problems of the nation. This has resulted in a government of varied ability and competence. The appointees to the cabinet as well as the sub-cabinet positions are a mix of competent and incompetent, the qualified and the unqualified, and the honest and the dishonest. There are some in government who have been accused of very serious crimes including narcotics smuggling.

A second major constraint is the lack of institutional capacity. For example, there has been a massive wave of crimes reported in the media in the past few months. The performance of the police has been less than professional in the handling of some of these cases. This deficiency can be seen in most government departments and state agencies.

Executive Power

Critics of the Sri Lankan executive presidency have viewed it as an office that concentrated power in the hands of one individual undermining democracy. Two previous holders of that office Chandrika Kumaratunga (1994-2005) and Mahinda Rajapaksa (2006-2014) when they contested for office for the first time in1994 and 2005 respectively promised the voters that the office would be abolished. Both broke their promise with impunity. In 2001 when the UNP won the parliamentary election and formed a government while Kumaratunga still remained as president the 17th amendment to the constitution was enacted that curtailed the powers of the president. However, UNP lost the 2004 parliamentary election and Kumaratunga willfully undermined the implementation of the 17th amendment until she left office in November 2005. Rajapaksa who succeeded her not only broke his promise but did the opposite by enacting the 18th amendment in 2010 that enhanced the powers of the presidency and removed the term limit that barred any person from holding the office for more than two six-year terms.

Sirisena campaigned for the January 7th election on a promise to introduce a “ constitutional structure” that would create an “Executive allied with the Parliament through the Cabinet instead of the present autocratic Executive Presidential System.” To his credit he got the parliament to enact the 19th amendment last April. It establishes a Constitutional Council that takes over some of the powers, most notably appointments to key commissions, that the president exercised previously. It also reduces the presidential term from six years to five, restores the two-term limit and paves the way to the establishment of ten key independent commissions that are expected to ensure among other things, the independence of vital state services such as the public service and the police, protect human rights and fight bribery and corruption. These in effect would also reduce the powers of the presidency. The process of establishing the commissions is under way to be completed in a few weeks from now.

Sri Lanka’s evolving presidency: Sirisena Wins Round Two in Political Battle

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena who secured the presidency last January 8th emerged victorious in the second round of his political battle with his former boss Mahinda Rajapaksa when the coalition of parties that he favored won the parliamentary election held on August 17th. Sirisena was a senior member of the cabinet under president Rajapaksa until he crossed over to the opposition on November 21st 2014 to contest Rajapaksa for the presidency. The winning coalition led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe (United National Party – UNP) won 106 seats in the 225-member parliament. Mahinda Rajapaksa who led the United People Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won 95 seats. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that represents the Tamils in the north and east of the country won 16 seats and the People’s Liberation Front that has a following in the Sinhalese urban areas won six.

This year’s parliamentary election, was the 15th since the first one held in 1947.  Starting with the second held in 1952 every election has been a battle for power between the two main parties, the right-of-center UNP and the left-of-center Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). From 1947 UNP and its allies have won eight of the elections and ruled the country for a total of 33 years and the SLFP and its allies have won seven elections and ruled the country for 34 years. In principle the battle lines were the same for the August 17th election. But there were some very crucial differences between this election and those in the past.

Sirisena won the January 8th presidential election polling 6.2 million votes to Rajapaksa’s 5.8 million. On assuming the presidency Sirisena claimed the leadership of the UPFA and SLFP with strong support from the former president Chandrika Kumaratunga (1994-2005) who was elected twice to that office on the SLFP ticket. Rajapaksa reluctantly conceded to Sirisena’s demand. Many expected Rajapaksa to retire from politics. But he decided, with the strong backing of his loyalists, to contest the parliamentary election in the hope of becoming the prime minister. He became the de facto leader of the UPFA that was an alliance of left-of-center parties dominated by the SLFP. Sirisena who had little choice in the matter reluctantly let Rajapaksa get the UPFA nomination.

The office of prime minister did not carry much clout after the executive presidency was established in 1978. The office was further devalued after Rajapaksa successfully steered the 18th amendment to the Constitution in 2010. However, the 19th amendment to the Constitution passed in April 2015 under Sirisena clipped some of the powers of the executive presidency that also made the office of prime minister more powerful. Moreover, had Rajapaksa won there was a real possibility that he would have been able to maneuver parliament and make Sirisena practically powerless. Thus the parliamentary election virtually became a replay of the January election but with one difference. This time Rajapaksa was fighting his traditional foe Ranil Wickramasinghe for the premiership. The latter won the election. In January Rajapaksa and his UPFA polled 5.4m votes in the eighteen predominantly Sinhalese-Buddhist districts outside the north and east. In August that vote dropped by 900,000 to 4.5m. In the same districts Sirisena polled 5.2m in January and the UNP and its allies polled 4.8m in August. The UNP lead of 300,000 votes in August made a crucial difference to the final result of the parliamentary election for two reasons. First, because under the Sri Lankan parliamentary election law in each of the 22 electoral districts the winning party gets a “bonus” seat. In August UNP won nine bonus seats in the “south” to UPFA’s eight. In the five districts in the north and east UNP won two out of the five available bonus seats, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) three and the UPFA none. Second, 29 seats are allocated from a “List” submitted by each party in proportion to the overall number polled and the UNP won 13 to UPFA’s 12.

President Sirisena used his power of office as well as his power as the president of the SLFP to thwart Rajapaksa’s attempt at a comeback. First, on July 14th soon after nominations for the elections he issued an official statement saying that he would remain “impartial” during the campaign but called upon the voters to “elect those best suited to ‘march forward with the Jan. 8 mandate.’ He also declared that he would not appoint Rajapaksa as prime minister even if the SLFP-led UPFA were to win the election.

Second, on August 13th, just four days before the poll, Sirisena wrote a four-page letter to Rajapaksa reiterating that he (Rajapaksa) would not be appointed prime minister even if the UPFA were to win the election. Sirisena noted that there were several other senior members of the party that qualified for the job.

Third, on the 14th of August, three day prior to the poll two Sirisena loyalist won a court order that effectively sacked the general secretaries of the SLFP and UPFA. The holders of these two positions have the power to deal with Sri Lanka’s elections commissioner on all matters pertaining to the election. With the court order in place Sirisena appointed two of his loyalists to fill the two vacancies. This gave Sirisena a free hand to, among other things, fill the national list slots of the UPFA with individuals who would back him in parliament. Of the 12 as many as five were defeated UPFA candidates considered to be Sirisena loyalists. Sirisena chose to ignore the criticism that it was an undemocratic act to appoint individuals that the electorate rejected.

Two weeks have passed since the parliamentary election. Sirisena and Wickramasinghe have announced that a “National Government” will be formed with the UNP and the SLFP as the principal constituent parties. Sirisena has sworn in Wickramasinghe as the Prime Minister. Three other members of the cabinet – Foreign Affairs, Justice and Resettlement – were also sworn in to facilitate the visit of US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal in late August.

The UNP and SLFP have agreed that in principle the former will have a few more portfolios than the latter because the UNP got more seats in parliament. The constitution allows for only a maximum of 30 cabinet positions if a single party forms the government. However, since the proposed government is a coalition more portfolios can be created but only with the approval of parliament. Media reports suggest that the actual number would be as high as 45 to 50 for which parliamentary approval would be obtained when it meets on September 1. In addition to cabinet ministries the government is expected to have more than fifty deputy misters and ministers of state.

A matter that still remains unresolved is the status of the official opposition and the party that would be entitled to claim the position of leader of the opposition. Rajapaksa loyalists in the UPFA claim that the position rightly belongs to the faction of the UPFA that chooses to sit on opposition benches. It is not clear whether Rajapaksa would choose to be the Leader of the Opposition. Rajapaksa loyalists fear that President Sirisena may appoint a person of his choice to the post. The TNA is also staking a claim to be considered as the main opposition party on the grounds that some of the MPs who were elected on the UPFA ticket have joined the government so that as a party the latter can no longer claim to be a legitimate opposition.

In sum Sri Lanka’s executive presidency has entered a new phase in its evolution. In the first phase from 1978 to 2014 it was seen as a powerful office that was evolving in a semi-authoritarian direction undermining democracy and good governance. Rajapaksa made it more so by arming the office with additional powers using the 18th amendment to the constitution. From January 8th President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe have amicably governed the country sharing power. Sirisena and Wickramasinghe passed the 19th amendment that clipped the powers of the presidency and made way for the establishment of a Constitutional Council and an array of “independent” commissions to help govern the country. These are due to be established in the coming few months. If they function as they are intended to, governance in Sri Lanka is bound to improve and democracy strengthen.

Sri Lanka – Popular President Delivers

The honeymoon period for President Maithripala Sirisena elected on January 8th 2015 still lingers on. He polled 51.3% of the popular vote in January. With a job approval rating of about 65% he is easily the most popular political leader in the country today.

There are several reasons for his popularity. The most important one being the sense of honesty and integrity that he has managed to project to the country. He made a public commitment not to seek reelection. The people have interpreted that as the action of a man who is not power hungry. That has also given him more freedom to advocate his positions on constitutional reform and challenge those who oppose. He has also used his popularity to advocate a moderate position on ethnic relations that directly challenges the more extremist views on both sides of the ethnic divide.

19th Amendment to the Constitution

President Sirisena also scored a major success in getting parliament to pass the 19th amendment to the Constitution with 215 members in the 225 strong parliament voting for it. The amendment repealed the 18th amendment that the previous Rajapaksa administration got adopted in 2010 that armed the president with extra-ordinary powers. The major features of the 19th amendment include a reduction in the terms of President and Parliament from six years to five, re-introduction of a two-term limit that a person can have as President, the power of President to dissolve Parliament only after four and a half years (the previous provision allowed for dissolution after one year), and the establishment of ten independent commissions that would pave the way to strengthen of democracy, human rights and good governance.

In the presidential campaign Sirisena and his backers made the voters believe that the executive presidency would be replaced with a British style prime ministerial system. That has not happened. The 19th amendment curtails presidential powers but the office remains intact otherwise. Sirisena has managed to retain an executive presidential system while shaving off some of its more ugly features that led to bad governance.

Electoral Reform

In his campaign for the presidency Mr. Sirisena promised to dissolve parliament on completion of his One-Hundred-Day Program. The last major promise under the program that remains to be fulfilled is to change the current system of election to parliament. Sri Lanka currently has a district-based (Sri Lanka has 25 administrative districts for a population of 21m) proportional representation (PR) system to elect 225 members of parliament. Some oppose the PR system on the grounds that district-wide elections that require candidates to canvass for preference votes in a large area favor the richer candidates and lead to corruption. They claim that the single constituency first-past-the-post system is more suitable and produces parliamentarians that are more accountable to the constituency.

The United National Party (UNP) that was primarily responsible for Sirisena’s victory in January is not keen on a change in the electoral system at this juncture. It wants the president to dissolve parliament as soon as possible and hold fresh elections under the current PR system in the belief that it has the electoral upper hand. Smaller parties and ethnic minorities that have secured parliamentary representation under the PR system also oppose change. Sections of the opposition including some in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that Mr. Sirisena leads support an immediate change and demands that the next election must be held under the reformed system that may include some PR but would give more weight to first-past-the-post single constituency system. Supporters of the former president Rajapaksa have a similar view in the belief that they stand to gain electorally from abolishing the PR system.

The cabinet at a meeting held on June 8th has agreed to amend the system to elect 125 MPs from the constituencies, 75 under PR based on districts, and the remaining 25 from the National List also based on PR. However, the next parliamentary election that is due soon will be held under the current PR system.

Foreign Relations

In foreign relations President Sirisena has clearly signaled that he does not want to be almost totally reliant on Chinese economic and diplomatic support as his predecessor Rajapaksa was. However, by making his second foreign visit to Beijing – the first was to Delhi – he also signaled that he wants to protect Sri Lanka’s friendship with the emerging superpower. While doing so he has managed to repair diplomatic fences with USA and other western countries that were badly damaged during the Rajapaksa administration. He visited the UK in mid May. US Secretary of State visited Sri Lanka in early May, the first by a US Secretary of State after Colin Powell’s visit in 2005 soon after the Asian Tsunami devastated parts of the coastal belt of the country. Mr. Kerry indicated the willingness of the Obama administration to support Sirisena’s government both diplomatically and economically.

Post-War to Post-Conflict Transition

With the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 Sri Lanka entered a post-war phase that needs to transit into a post-conflict phase. The Rajapaksa administration (2006-2014) failed to grasp the vital difference between post-war and post-conflict. President Sirisena appreciates the difference and has made a serious bid in the past five months to appeal to the Tamil and Muslim minorities to join him in the task of nation building. However, that is not a task that the president alone is able to accomplish. He needs the backing of the legislature and a stable government that the country presently lacks.

President Sirisena faces at least three major political challenges. First, he has to make sure that the former president Rajapaksa fails in his effort to make a political comeback. Rajapaksa is drawing a great deal of media attention. He also has the support of a group of MPs that do not find favor with Sirisena. However, there is no hard evidence to suggest that there is major public support for Rajapaksa and his followers.

The second major challenge that he has to face is to retain his credibility as the leader of the SLFP while also not undermining the political future of the UNP and its leader present Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe. The two parties have been traditional rivals. Sirisena has to placate both sides. His solution is to promote a “national government” that would bring together the two parties under his overall leadership. There is significant public support for this idea. Under the current PR system if there is a three-way – UNP, SLFP and Rajapaksa Alliance – contest for seats in parliament it is likely that the UNP would emerge with the largest number of seats followed by the SLFP, with the Rajapaksa faction coming a distant third. Then Sirisena would succeed in his plan to form a national government that may include not only the UNP and SLFP but also some of the smaller parties that represent Tamil and Muslim ethnic interests. With strong leadership and right mixture of policies such a government may be able to usher in a post-conflict Sri Lanka.

The third major challenge is economic. Sri Lanka’s economy produced high GDP growth rates in the past five years, largely thanks to Chinese-funded high profile physical infrastructure projects. Some of those projects such as the Mattala international airport were poor choices that have yielded low or no economic returns. Sirisena has to find a more viable alternative model that will create jobs and improve incomes of the middle class and the working poor. There are no signs of that happening under the unstable political environment that prevails today. Thus we can expect President Sirisena to dissolve parliament very soon and ask the people for a mandate for a new administration.


Sri Lanka’s Presidency at a Crossroads

Sri Lanka’s president Maithripala Sirisena was elected on January 8th 2015 mainly with the support of the then opposition United National Party (UNP) and smaller parties that have the support of minority ethnic groups. He has been in office only for about twelve weeks. In the second half of this period he has focused his attention on two main activities. The first is trying to craft the constitutional change that he promised the voters. The second is traveling to Delhi, London and Beijing to gain the confidence of key foreign powers for his new government. This essay will review the two activities in that order.

Constitutional Changes

There is no one theory to clearly determine the balance of power between the legislative branch and the executive branch of government in a democracy. It depends on the system of government that a country prefers and varies over time depending on a complex of political and other forces. Sri Lanka’s thirty five year old executive presidency has reached a crossroads in its evolution. Currently the powers of Sri Lanka’s executive presidency are under intense scrutiny.

Sirisena campaigned on a promise to usher in “Yaha Paalanaya” (Good Governance). The single most important promise that he made in his manifesto was to create a “new Constitutional structure (that) would be essentially an Executive allied with the Parliament through the Cabinet instead of the present autocratic Executive Presidential System.” This was a response to the misrule of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa (2006-14). Many voters enthusiastically agreed with candidate Sirisena because they viewed the all-powerful executive presidency as the principal source of all that was wrong in the country.

On assuming office Sirisena wanted to project an image that was the exact opposite of his predecessor. He asked people to dispense with the honorific “His Excellency” when addressing him. He decided not to use the official residence of the president. He publicly declared that he would not seek reelection. Under the proposed constitutional amendment the term of office of the president will be limited to five years instead of the current six and no person will be allowed more than two terms. The original campaign commitment was to make the constitutional changes within 100 days of assuming office, dissolve parliament “after Thursday April 24” and hold fresh parliamentary elections to form a new government under a new constitution. But this plan has run into difficulty.

Some civil society organizations that supported Sirisena in the election insist on the abolition of the executive presidency. Poltical parties that supported Sirisena as well as those that opposed him want the executive presidency to be retained but with “reduced” power. There is no agreement on what those reduced powers should be and on the allocation of powers between the president and the prime minister. Sirisena also promised to abolish the current proportional representation (PR) system and replace it with a British style constituency system combined with a modified PR system. That proposal has also stalled because there is no agreement on what the new system should be.

Existential Challenge

There are signs that Sirisena is also facing an existential political challenge. He took over the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) from former president Rajapaksa. The SLFP enjoys a majority in parliament and its support is essential to amend the constitution. President Rajapaksa was criticized for having an inflated cabinet, wasting public funds. Sirisena promised a cabinet whose “number, composition and nature …… would be determined on a scientific basis.”

In January he appointed a cabinet of 27 with 9 additional state ministers and 8 deputies. The “scientific” basis of this cabinet is questionable. In late March he appointed more ministers – 11 cabinet, 5 state, and 10 deputy – making up a total of 68 in government. This act of poltical expediency was to secure the support of the opposition SLFP for his constitutional amendments and legislative program.

One segment of the opposition is campaigning to bring back former president Rajapaksa into active politics. His recent public utterances suggest that he may be amenable to the idea. In this situation Sirisena has to play his cards with the utmost care. In particular if he becomes a figurehead president there is no compelling reason for the SLFP be loyal to him. Rajapaksa who is a charismatic leader may see his chance to return to power. As things stand he has a lot to lose if his financial misdemeanors and other acts of commission and omission and those of his family members and supporters that were in office are exposed and legal action taken. The best way to foreclose that unwelcome prospect is to return to power. President Sirisena, and more particularly his allies in the United National Party are making plenty of mistakes that have disappointed those who supported Sirisena improving Rajapaksa’s chances of a comeback.

Poor Constitution Making

It is likely that Sri Lanka will end with a hybrid system with a president that has some powers but not much. The public’s wish for a more powerful cabinet led by a prime minister is likely to be realized. In this debate it appears that Sri Lanka is making a basic mistake that many countries make in writing constitutions. That is the failure to make a distinction between basic principles of governance on the one hand and details of governance on the other. A viable and lasting constitution is best assured by limiting itself to basic principles, institutional arrangements and related provisions. Ordinary legislation can be made to take care of details and the judiciary can be asked to adjudicate when there is a dispute. Unfortunately the proposed constitutional amendments go into such detail that it even refers to ordinary state-owned media establishments by name. The proposed 19th amendment has over 15000 words, over three times that of original US constitution, raising questions about the competency of the drafters of the amendments.

Foreign Relations

In the midst grappling with a complicated domestic poltical situation, President Sirisena made three important trips abroad. The first was to Delhi, followed by one to London and the third to China. The trip to Delhi in mid-February was a clear signal that the Sirisena administration recognizes the importance of bilateral relations with India. India is the main supplier of imports to Sri Lanka accounting for 17.6% of the total value in 2013. India’s net foreign assistance to Sri Lanka in 2013 totaled $170m. Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi reciprocated with a visit of his own to Colombo in mid-March. Delhi and Colombo signed several bilateral agreements during the visit including a currency swap agreement worth $1.5 billion and a loan of $318 to develop Sri Lanka’s railway system.

In early March Sirisena visited London for the Commonwealth Day Celebrations. He made use of the opportunity to have bilateral discussion with the UK Prime Minster David Cameron who was critical of the human rights record of the Rajapaksa administration.


Sri Lanka-China relations grew rapidly under the previous Rajapaksa administration. In particular China became the principal funder of large-scale infrastructure projects. In 2013 China provided Sri Lanka $477m. in loan assistance, about 43% of all such assistance that the country received. In the same year China supplied 16.4% of Sri Lanka’s imports. President Rajapaksa who was under attack from the west for his lapses in good governance and poor human rights record found in China a friend that helped without asking any awkward questions. President Sirisena has hinted that he would be a little more circumspect in dealing with China. However, Sirisena knows that Sri Lanka has to main cordial relations with Asia’s rising super power. He flew to Beijing in late March for bilateral talks with the Chinese leaders and then attended the annual Boao Forum for Asia Conference. Media reports have announced that China committed to assist Sri Lanka in various fields and to give $1.0 billion in grant aid over an unspecified period of time. However, the future of the controversial $1.4 billion Colombo Port City Project that commenced when Rajapaksa was in office remains unsettled. According to media reports the project would reclaim 233 hectares of land from the sea to build a modern city complex adjacent to the Colombo port. China would get 108 hectares of which 20 would be in perpetuity and another 88 on a 99-year lease. China views this project as a part of the Maritime Silk Road that it wants to develop. Sri Lanka has several concerns. One is the presence of a foreign power occupying a strategic part of its territory in perpetuity, especially because Delhi won’t be happy to see China have a permanent foothold in Sri Lankan territory. The economics of the project is also questionable. Environmentalists have expressed concern about the possible adverse environmental consequences of the project. China is exerting considerable pressure on Colombo to allow the project to go ahead.

Sri Lanka Considers Reforming the Presidency

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.

Stanley W. Samarasinghe – Sri Lanka: A Vote For Change

This is a guest post by Stanley W. Samarasinghe, Adjunct Professor at the Payson Center for International Development at the Law School in Tulane University

Sam Samarasinghe

Sri Lanka’s 7th Presidential Election – A Vote for Change

Sri Lanka voted for change in the country’s 7th presidential election held on Thursday January 8th. The common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena (MS) won the presidency polling 51.3% of the vote to United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) candidate and incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa’s (MR) 47.6%. This was a swing of 10.3 percentage points against MR who polled 57.9% in 2010. The latter was first elected president in 2005. He was contesting the presidency for the third time having made a controversial amendment to the constitution in 2010 that removed the two-term limit.


Sirisena was a senior member of Rajapaksa’s cabinet and served as the Secretary General of the UPFA. His crossover to the opposition on November 21, about three weeks prior to the date of nomination took the country by surprise. The common opposition backing Sirisena consisted of the main opposition party United National Party (UNP) and several minor parties. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that represents the Sri Lankan Tamils (12% of the electorate) and the two parties that represent the Muslins (9%) and the radical People’s Liberation Front (JVP) also backed Sirisena.

Development vs. Good Governance

Winning the war in 2009 defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), continued vigilance against a recurrence of “terrorism” and mega development projects launched mainly with Chinese loan funds were the main arguments of the Rajapaksa for requesting a third term.

Sirisena rejected the possibility of a recurrence of terrorism. He argued that the Rajapaksa family and his main supporters were guilty of unprecedented corruption, that the mega development projects were largely wasteful, and that the regime abused power, violated principles of good governance and undermined democracy in the country.

Rajapaksa who deployed state machinery and misused state resources on an unprecedented scale for his campaign was confident of victory. According to reliable opinion polls Sirisena started the campaign at the end of November as the underdog with about 20% of the vote to Rajapaksa’s 44%. Over the next five weeks Sirisena gained on Rajapaksa who was stuck around 45%, the lavish campaign spending and deployment of state machinery in his favour notwithstanding.

Opinion polls that were conducted in the five weeks prior to the election showed an overwhelming 80% of the electorate recognized the 2009 war victory against the LTTE and the peace that it brought to the daily lives of people as a major benefit for which MR got most credit. About 36% of the voters also gave credit to MR for the mega development projects.

However, the voters were also concerned about three issues that stood against Rajapaksa. These were the high cost of living, inadequate income and corruption.

In the first three weeks of the campaign in December the opposition was relatively successful in keeping the focus of the voter on the cost of living and other economic woes of the voters. They also tried to tie the cost of living to two glaring shortcomings of the government. One was corruption. The second was waste of funds on unproductive mega projects such as the Mattala international airport costing $209 million and the Hambantota Port (Phase 1) costing $361 million.

In the last two weeks of the campaign Rajapaksa made a serious bid to move the debate to the issue of terrorism and national security where his credentials remain unmatched. The opposition’s argument that Rajapaksa was merely trying to resurrect an old-issue that has already been settled, in order to cover other shortcomings of his admiration resonated with many voters, especially those who belonged to the minorities, and the more educated urban Sinhalese voters.

Broad-based Win

Rajapaksa who polled 5.8 m. (47.6%) won the vote of the majority ethnic group Sinhelase (75% of the population) 52% to 48%. However, Sirisena who won 6.2 million votes (51.3% of the valid poll) did exceedingly well among the minorities polling as much as 80% of the vote. He also did very well in Colombo and some of its suburbs and in some of the provincial capitals. Sirisena’s win was broad-based. He not only won the endorsement of the minorities but he also did very well among the Sinhalese majority community.

Change in Action

In the one week that Sirisena has been in office he has appointed his cabinet that consists of members from all the parties in parliament except two, TNA and JVP. Both turned down offers to join the cabinet but have pledged to support Sirisena.

Some officials of the Rajapaksa regime who have been accused of bribery and corruption have fled the country. Some have resigned from office or have been removed.

Most countries have welcomed Sirisena’s victory. India and USA are likely to be particularly pleased because the heavy dependence of the Rajapaksa regime on Beijing would have caused them some anxiety.

Sirisena has a One Hundred Day Program. It includes, among other things, relief for consumers who are suffering from the high cost of living. Sirisena also wants to establish of a series of commissions to depoliticize the investigation of bribery and corruption, and make the police, judiciary, public service, and the conduct of elections independent and free of poltical interference. He also wants to amend the constitution to scale down the powers of the executive presidency, increase the powers of parliament, and reform of the electoral system.

There is considerable enthusiasm for the “change” that has occurred. But Sri Lankans also realize that the nation’s politics are in uncharted waters. President Sirisena expects to complete this One Hundred Day Program in three months and call for fresh elections to form a government of national unity. Whether such a government would be possible depends on the final outcome of the realignment of poltical forces that is currently taking place in the country following Sirisena’s victory.

Stanley W. Samarasinghe is Adjunct Professor at the Payson Center for International Development at the Law School in Tulane University. Prominent in the fields of Economics, International Development, and Conflict Studies, Professor Samarasinghe designs and teaches post-graduate courses in International Development, Development Economics, International Health and Ethnic Conflict. Previous positions include Director of the Payson Center’s office in Arlington, VA, and over 20 years of teaching at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. In 2005 he visited the Tsunami countries in Asia for the UN and co-authored a UN report titled “Coordination of International Humanitarian Assistance in Tsunami-Affected Countries.” He is currently researching and writing on “Female-headed households in the former war zone of Sri Lanka.” He is also preparing a monograph on the “Political Economy of Development in Sri Lanka”.