Sri Lankan democracy at the crossroads

Sri Lankan democracy at the crossroads

By Kan Butani


The rule of law and a civil society bound by conventions of justice and Fairness are today under challenge. A democratic form of government in which the party (or a coalition of Parties) with the greatest representation in Government forms the Government, its leader becoming the Prime Minister. This is the basic tenet of a Democratic Government. So one cannot understand this bickering and unnecessary legal issues because the powers that be cannot accept what is legal and fair. According to Lakshman Kiriella, the President has even gone to the extent of saying he will not appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe even if all 225 members of Parliament tell him to do so. This is the height of totalitarianism. According to media reports, the President goes to the extent of saying: “Don’t let current crisis disrupt people’s lives when he is the one who has to take full responsibility for the current crisis and also disrupting public life. The SLPP members are clamouring for a general election. How can you have an election, under the rule of an illegal government? Besides, if the President does not like the leader of the winning party he may not appoint him as Prime Minister.

I was studying at Kingswood College Kandy and there it was a tradition to recite a Prologue at the College Prize Giving. In the year 1963, I had the privilege of reciting the Prologue created and composed by the College Principal the late Mr K. M. de. Lanerolle the best ever known tutors of the English Language with a storehouse of knowledge, with elocution skills to match and also a master-class orator. I do not remember the entire Prologue but do remember the last verse which is appropriate to be quoted at this point of time

“What’s cooking in the Kitchens of the Great?

The Common Man is looking at his plate

Totalitarianism isn’t quite the kind of thing of which he wants a bite

A simple menu card is what he needs with the milk of human kindness and seeds of freedom plainly dressed.

A democratic menu card is the best.”

It is also fitting to remember the obituary notice inserted by Dr Riley Fernando in 1974 which to refresh your memory was read as follows:

“O ‘ CRACY – The death occurred under tragic circumstances of D.E.M.O. CRACY beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Berty brother of Faith, Hope, and Justitia. Interred on Saturday 20th inst. Araliya Medura, Panagiyawatte Anduruwela.”

From the days of the Legislative Council in 1921 to date the person who commanded the most number of votes has been appointed leader of the house, Council, or Parliament as the case maybe except in one instance i.e. in January 2015 when Ranil was appointed Prime Minister by President Maitripala Sirisena, although he was leader of the minority party which had only 40 odd seats. This decision was not challenged, had it been challenged, and Ranil did not have a majority he would definitely have had to step down.

The first election petition in our legislative history was filed in 1921 in the days of the Legislative council. E.W. Perera left for England after the Sinhala-Muslim riots with that infamous “shoot-at-sight” order concealed in his famous shoe and in London he spent a few years. Much of it lobbying for political reforms in Ceylon.

After four years in England, he returned and contested what was called a Western Province B Division Seat. Nominations had been called on the 31st of March 1921 and polling held on the 21st April. And E.W. Perera won, defeating quite a formidable opponent – Forrester Obeysekere.

Section 13 of the Constitution of the time laid: No person shall be capable of being elected Member of the Legislative Council who has not been ordinarily resident within the area for a period of three years immediately preceding the date of nomination as a candidate for election.

An election petition was filed against E.W. Perera and the substance of the petition was that from July 1915 to May 1919 (two years before his election), he was out of the island and was hence disqualified to be elected to the legislature.

But E.W. presented a very unusual argument. He said that his house, his study, his books, his personal effects, his bedroom etc. etc. here in Ceylon had been maintained in good order right throughout his absence abroad which meant he was present in spirit and what was more important had the clear intention of returning to his motherland. The Election Judge upheld this contention, and E.W retained his seat.

Under British rule in 1931, the Donoughmore Constitution did not provide for a Government and Opposition, naturally. Instead, the State Council was divided into seven committees – Local Government Committee, Health Committee, Education, Home Affairs and so on. Each Committee had seven members who elected the Chairman of that Committee who then became Minister of whatever subject that committee dealt with. In July 1931 the Home Affairs met to elect its Chairman. One member proposed the name of Sir D.B. Jayatilleke and another seconded it. Someone else proposed the name of Sir Cudah Ratwatte and that too was seconded.

When those in favour of Sir D.B. Jayatilleke were asked to raise their hands three hands went up; those of D.B. himself and his proposer and seconder. Then those in favour of Sir Ratwatte were asked to raise their hands and three hands went up. The hand that did not go up was that of Sir Cudah Ratwatte. You can imagine the tension that would have been building up, for a Ministerial Post in that first State Council was a very coveted one, ensuring the holder’s political future and then came one of those imperishable scenes of utter gallantry that makes the blood of men surge like thunder in their veins. In an unmatched gesture of pure selflessness, Sir Ratwatte cast his vote for his opponent Sir, D.B. Jayatilleke. What men they were; what Gentlemen!

The very first general election in 1947 was won by the UNP by a slim majority under the first Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake. He died unexpectedly in March 1952 and his son Dudley was chosen as Prime Minister by Governor-General Lord Soulbury over his cousin Sir John. He called a general election in 1952 and won comfortably. In 1953, he raised the price of rice and cut subsidies became very unpopular as people revolted got sick and resigned. Governor General Lord Soulbury asked Sir John to take over as Prime Minister and form a Government although he had a grudge, but since UNP held the majority. In fact, he had told Sir John: “I suppose now that you are Prime Minister, you will want me to resign ?” “To which Sir John is reported to have said, I shall think about it.” Lord Soulbury took the cue and resigned a year later and on Sir John’s recommendation, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke became Governor General.

Sir John called an election early in 1956 on the advice of his Secretary Sir Ukwatte Jayasundera and lost. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike of the SLFP won a landslide victory. SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959 and Wijayananda Dahanayake was appointed Caretaker Prime Minister. After a year of turmoil, he called elections in March 1960. In 1960 when Dudley Senanayake formed his Government with an uneasy coalition of no less than seven parties, it was popularly called the Hath-havula. After its first speech from the Throne, the motion of thanks was debated in the house and on Dudley winding it up, a voice vote was taken.

Those in favour say ‘Aye’ droned the speaker

“AYE!” ROARED THE Government MP”s in on raucous voice

Grinned the 2nd MP for Colombo South Bernard Soysa from the opposition front- bench “THE HATH HOWL”

This Coalition fragmented and lasted only four months and Dudley Senanayake called a general election in July 1960.

Eventually, the leadership of the SLFP fell to Bandaranaike’s widow Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who led the SLFP to a resounding victory and became the world’s first female Prime Minister and was soon appointed a Senator. The Government was brought down in 1965 by the crossing- over of leader of the house, C .P. De Silva and some of his men precipitating the 1965 General Election.

Dudley Senanayake was able to form a Government in 1965 and served his longest term as Prime Minister from March 1965 to May 1970. Following the landslide victory of the United Front Coalition (SLFP LSSP and the Communists) lead by Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the 1970 elections with a large majority Dudley Senanayake resigned from the Post of Prime Minister and although active in Politics winning the Dedigama seat he remained a member of Parliament but did not accept the post of leader of opposition allowing J.R. Jayewardene to serve as Leader of the Opposition and become de-facto leader of the UNP.

Tapping into great anger with the SLFP Government Jayawardene led the UNP to a crushing victory in the 1977 election. The UNP won a staggering five-sixths of the seats in Parliament that were magnified by the first-past-the-post system and one of the most lopsided victories ever recorded for a democratic election. Immediately thereafter he amended the Constitution of 1972 to make the Presidency an executive post.

The provisions of the amendment automatically made the incumbent Prime Minister – himself – President and he was sworn in as President on 4th February 1978. He passed a new Constitution on 31st August 1978 which came into operation on 9th September of the same year which granted the President sweeping –and according to some critics dictatorial powers.

R. Premadasa was elected 2nd Executive President when Late J.R. Jayewardene stepped down, defeating Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1989. He led the UNP to victory at the General Election held in 1989. R. Premadasa was murdered along with 17 others on 1st May 1993. Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was sworn in as acting President the very next day.

When a general election was called for in 1994 Chandrika Kumaratunga, having rejoined the SLFP, formed a coalition called the People’s Alliance and led it to victory with a slim majority and was able to form a Government with the support of the Ceylon Workers Congress. Backed by the PA she then contested the Presidency against Gamini Dissanayake who was the leader of the opposition backed by the UNP. However, Dissanayake was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber and his widow Srima Dissanayake took over his nomination. Chandrika won the Presidential Election in 1994 gaining 62.28% of the vote becoming the first female President of Sri Lanka in November 1994. She appointed her mother to succeed her as Prime Minister.

In October 1999 Chandrika called for an early Presidential Election. She managed to defeat Ranil Wickremesinghe in the election on 21st December and was sworn in for another term the next day. In December 2001 her party the People’s Alliance lost the General Election to the UNP and her political opponent Ranil Wickremesinghe became Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister. On 4th November 2003, while Ranil Wickremesinghe was on an official visit to the US, Chandrika prorogued Parliament and took over Defence, Interior and Media Ministries herself. This action was dictatorial but as per the existing Constitution. Kumaratunge’s PA and the JVP formed the UPFA United People’s Freedom Alliance in January 2004 and dissolved Parliament. Having won the election on 2nd April 2004 the UPFA formed a Government with Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. Chandrika’s six-year term ended in 2005. She argued that she had a secret swearing in for her second term an year after her formal swearing to the second term. The Supreme Court rejected this stating that her term ended in 2005. In the Presidential Election that followed Mahinda Rajapakse gained 50.29% defeating Ranil Wickremesinghe and succeeded her as President.

On 19th May 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa delivered a victory address to the Parliament and declared that Sri Lanka had been liberated from terrorism. Following the end of the conflict, a rift emerged between Rajapaksa and Fonseka over reasons which are still disputed. On 15th November Rajapaksa ordered Fonseka to leave his post as Chief of Defence Staff with immediate effect. Fonseka then joined the Opposition as Candidate against Rajapakse in the 2010 Presidential Election at which Rajapaksa emerged the victor. He contested He contested for a third term after changing the Constitution and lost to Maithripala Sirisena the Common Opposition Candidate in January 2015.

The government in power in 2015 reduced the powers of the Executive Presidency by way of the 19th amendment and this is the situation we are facing today.



About editor 3020 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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