Government type: presidential republic. Sri Lanka has a strong presidency and parliament, somewhat like France. It used to operate under the Westminster parliamentary government similar to the one in Great Britain. It changed to the current system in February 1978. The prime minister is the leader of the party with the most seats in Parliament. The President doesn’t necessarily have to be a member of the same party as the Prime Minister.

European presence on Sri Lanka lasted 450 years with island the Portuguese, Dutch, and British all influencing Sri Lanka's government, jurisprudence, and administration. After Sri Lanka became independent in 1948 it initially had dominion status in the Commonwealth, like nearby India and Pakistan, butdid so only until 1972 when the island was formally proclaimed a democratic republic and a unitary state with the office of governor-general converting to a ceremonial presidency. After that was was vested in Parliament and the prime minister. Following a landslide electoral victory by the United National Party (UNP) in 1997, the government was overhauled so it was more like a constitutional system than a British one. The result was the 1978 constitution which established a a powerful presidency, abolished the upper house of the legislature, and established a system of proportional representation as the basis for parliamentary elections. Following the French model, the president is elected to a five year term and serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, chief of state, and head of government. The president appoints and heads a cabinet of ministers who are responsible to a 225-seat unicameral legislature. The president is supposed to is supposed to work in tandem with the prime minister, who is the leader of the ruling party in Parliament. [Source: “Cities of the World”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Sri Lanka used to have a strong socialist government. In some quarters it was regarded as a model of civic development in the Third World, boasting high rate of literacy, a good education system and democracy. The socialist policies, however drove the economy into the ground. In recent decades it has adopted more market-oriented policies. Under both socialist and market-oriented leadership, the Sri Lankan government has been considered nepotism-ridden and corrupt.

Administrative divisions: Nine provinces — Central, Eastern, North Central, Northern, North Western, Sabaragamuwa, Southern, Uva, Western — and 25 administrative districts. Capital: Colombo (commercial capital); Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte (legislative capital). Independence: February 4, 1948 (from the UK). Citizenship: citizenship by birth: no; citizenship by descent only: at least one parent must be a citizen of Sri Lanka; dual citizenship recognized: no, except in cases where the government rules it is to the benefit of Sri Lanka; residency requirement for naturalization: 7 years. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Democracy Index: 6.14, ranked 68th out of 167 countries; classified a flawed democracy (compared to Norway, ranked first with a score of 9.87 and North Korean ranked last with a score of 1.08). The index is based on 60 indicators grouped in five different categories, measuring pluralism, civil liberties and political culture. [Source: Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Flag and Symbols of Sri Lanka

Flag: Adopted in 1951 and sometimes referred to as the Lion Flag, the Sri Lankan flag is yellow with two panels. The smaller hoist-side panel has two equal vertical bands of green (hoist side) and orange. The other larger panel depicts a yellow lion holding a saber on a maroon rectangular field that also displays a yellow bodhi tree leaf in each corner. The yellow field appears as a border around the entire flag and extends between the two panels. The lion represents Sinhalese ethnicity, the strength of the nation, and bravery. The sword demonstrates the sovereignty of the nation. The four bodhi tree leaves — symbolizing Buddhism and its influence on the country — stand for the four Buddhist virtues of kindness, friendliness, happiness, and equanimity. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

The Sri Lankan flag symbolizes the ethnic groups that make up the nation. Orange represents the Sri Lankan Tamils, green signifies the Sri Lankan Moors, maroon symbolizes the Sinhalese majority and yellow denotes other ethnic groups. The Sinhalese lion, with a sword in its right paw, is the legendary forbear of the Sinhalese,

National anthem name: "Sri Lanka Matha" (Mother Sri Lanka). It was adopted in 1951. The lyrics and music are by Ananda Samarkone

National symbol(s): lion, water lily; national colors: maroon, yellow. National Tree: Iron Wood (Mesua Ferrea); National Bird: Ceylon Jungle fowl (Wali kukula, Ceylon Jungle fowl or Gallus Lafayetti Jungle fowl) resembles a chicken and is most common in the national parks and forests. National Flower: Blue Water Lily (Nil Manel or Nymphaea stellata) was chosen as the national flower in February 1986. Found all the part of Sri Lanka, it grows in the shallow water. Its petals are arranged like a star and the flat round waterproof leaves are bright green. It`s a symbol of purity and truth.

National Emblem: A lion with sword in its right fore-paw encircled with a Palapethi open petal design top. Below there was a strip carrying the country's name in Sinhala, Tamil and English. This new republican emblem was chosen after the country was declared a Republic on May 22, 1972. The Palapethi open petal design portrays the Punkalasa, Dhammachakka, sun, moon and two sheaves of paddy. Sri Lanka used the British emblem when it was a British Crown Colony. The country continued to use it even after gaining independence in 1948. [Source: Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau ]

Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “The official symbols of Sri Lanka are largely drawn from those representing the Sinhala Buddhist majority. Sinhala means "lion's blood" and the lion is the central image on the national flag. Also pictured on the flag and other emblems of national culture are the leaves of the sacred Bo Tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment. Other symbols central to Sri Lankan Buddhism and Sinhala mythology have also become icons of national identity, such as the Tooth Relic of the Buddha, the possession of which has provided legitimacy to Sinhala rulers for thousands of years. The Sri Lankan elephant is a symbol of national heritage and of prosperity, both for its long association with wealth and royalty and for its association with Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wealth. The betel leaf and oil lamp are used to mark special occasions. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

History of the Government in Sri Lanka

In the years following Sri Lanka's attainment of independence on February 4, 1948, the country's political system appeared to be the very model of a parliamentary democracy. The country stood virtually alone among its South and Southeast Asian neighbors in possessing a viable two-party system in which the conservative United National Party (UNP) and the left-of-center Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) alternated with each other in power after fairly contested elections. Respect for legal institutions and the independence of the judiciary were well established. Sri Lanka's military, never sizable, refrained from intervening in politics, and the country's leadership pursued generally moderate policies in its relations with other states. Although per capital income was low compared to that of India and other South Asian countries, over the decades successive governments invested heavily in health, educational, and other social service facilities. As a result, standards of health and literacy were high and seemed to provide a firm foundation for democracy and political stability. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Sri Lanka was, however, heir to cultural and historical traditions at variance with its constitutionally defined parliamentary political institutions. Family and caste played major roles in determining the leadership of the major parties and the ebb and flow of political patronage. But ethnicity and religion were the most important and politically relevant determinants in this traditionally diverse society. After 1948 and especially after passage of the Official Language Act, popularly known as the "Sinhala Only" bill, in 1956, the Sri Lankan Tamil community, which was largely Hindu, came to feel that its political interests were being ignored and belittled by the mainstream political parties led by Buddhist Sinhalese. The feeling of grievance festered during the 1970s in the wave of preferential policies that favored Sinhalese applicants for university positions and government jobs. Abandonment of the idea of a secular state — the 1972 constitution guaranteed "the foremost place" for the Buddhist religion of the Sinhalese — further aroused Tamil alienation. Conversely, the Sinhalese, who regarded the Tamils as an economically and educationally privileged group, were determined to secure what they considered "majority rights," including freedom from alleged economic exploitation by Tamils. They also feared that the Sri Lankan Tamils could be a "fifth column" for the much larger Tamil population in neighboring India. From the Buddhist Sinhalese perspective, it was they, living in a "sea" of Hindu Tamils, who were the true minority, not the Sri Lankan Tamils. *

In a sense, the effectiveness of democratic institutions in conveying the viewpoints of middle class and working-class Sinhalese, electorally a majority of voters, promoted ethnic polarization. Politicians such as the S.W.R.D. and Sirimavo Bandaranaike effectively used appeals to Sinhalese chauvinism to unseat their UNP opponents. Neither the UNP nor the SLFP parties dared make concessions to the Tamils for fear of alienating the majority Sinhalese. Thus the UNP government of Junius Richard (J.R.) Jayewardene, which came to power in July 1977, was as determined as the earlier SLFP governments not to yield to Tamil demands for language parity and regional autonomy. By the early 1980s, armed groups of young Tamil extremists, committed to establishing an independent Tamil Eelam, or state, were well established in Tamil-majority areas in the northern and eastern parts of the country or operating out of bases in India's Tamil Nadu State. *

In July 1977, Jayewardene won an unprecedented majority in the national legislature, gaining 140 out of 168 seats. In 1978 a new Constitution, the third in Sri Lanka's postindependence history, was promulgated providing for a strong presidency. Jayewardene became the first chief executive under the new system. Some observers interpreted controversial amendments to the Constitution, such as the extension of the life of Parliament for another six years, passed in December 1982, as an illegitimate manipulation of the legal political process designed to give the UNP a virtually uncontested monopoly of political power. In terms of the ethnic crisis, an August 1983 amendment outlawing the advocacy of separatism, which resulted in the expulsion of members of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) from Parliament, was most fateful. Against a background of escalating communal violence, it deprived Sri Lankan Tamils of political representation.

July 1983 was a turning point in the worsening ethnic crisis. Anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and other cities, prompted by the killing of thirteen Sinhalese soldiers by Tamil Tiger guerrillas in the north, resulted in hundreds and perhaps as many as 2,000 deaths. The government was unprepared for the scale of violence and faced accusations of sublime unconcern for the Tamils' welfare, while foreign observers told of the active connivance of government figures in mob violence. The inability or unwillingness of President Jayewardene and the UNP to forge a workable settlement of ethnic issues brought India, which had immense interests of its own in the matter, directly into the crisis. According to the Indian press, under the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi India unofficially permitted the establishment of training camps for the Sri Lankan Tamil insurgents in the state of Tamil Nadu. With the assumption of power by Gandhi's son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, New Delhi adopted a more even-handed approach and sought to mediate the escalating crisis in Sri Lanka by bringing government and Tamil insurgent negotiators together for talks. Eventually, the New Delhi government went further and came down squarely on the side of Colombo with the signing of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of July 29, 1987. The pact committed New Delhi to the deployment of a peacekeeping force on the island, as asked by the Sri Lankan government, and made the Indian government the principal guarantor of a solution to the ethnic crisis. *

The accord was designed to meet Sri Lankan Tamil demands for self-determination through the merging of the Northern and Eastern provinces and the devolution of substantial executive, legislative, and judicial powers. Tamil was made an official language, on a par with Sinhalese. A cease-fire was arranged, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other guerrilla groups surrendered some but not all of their arms. Many doubted that the accord, which the guerrillas had not played a role in formulating and the LTTE opposed, would bring lasting peace. By mid-1988, the Indian Army, in a series of hard-fought engagements that had caused it several hundred casualties, generally cleared the Jaffna Peninsula in Northern Province of Tamil guerrillas. The Indian Peacekeeping Force established a semipermanent garrison, and a measure of tranquility returned to the area. In Eastern Province, the Indian Peacekeeping Force had less success in suppressing the insurgents and the situation remained precarious. Bands of Tamil guerrillas remained at large, surfacing apparently at will to initiate violent incidents that led to an unremitting loss of life among innocent civilians, Sinhalese and Tamil, as well as among military personnel of both the Sri Lankan and Indian armed forces. In the predominantly Sinhalese, southern fringe of the island, the Jayewardene government faced escalating violence at the hands of Sinhalese militants who opposed the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord as a sellout to the Tamil extremists. *

Constitution of Sri Lanka and the History Behind It

Constitution: The first republican constitution was adopted in February 1972. The present constitution, Sri Lanka’s third, was approved in August 1978. A two thirds vote in parliament is needed to change the constitution. Amendments are proposed by Parliament; passage requires at least two-thirds majority vote of its total membership, certification by the president of the republic or the Parliament speaker, and in some cases approval in a referendum by absolute majority of valid votes; amended many times, last in 2015; note — deliberations by a constitutional assembly tasked with revising the constitution in March 2016 stalled after the prime minister tabled an experts’ report on proposals for a new constitution in January 2019. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Sri Lanka has benefited from the traditions of the rule of law and constitutional government that emerged during 150 years of British colonial rule. At least until the early 1970s, these traditions fostered the development of a political system characterized by broad popular participation in the political process, generally strict observance of legal guarantees of human and civil rights, and an orderly succession of elected governments without the intervention, as has occurred in several neighboring states, of the military. By the early 1980s, however, many observers feared for the future of Sri Lanka's democratic institutions. Some observers contended that constitutional government, rather than curbing the arbitrary use of political power, seemed itself to be shaped by aggressively narrow sectarian interests whose manipulation of the constitutional amendment process excluded large numbers of persons from politics and contributed to ethnic polarization and violence. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

After the Dutch ceded the island's maritime provinces to the British in 1802, these areas became Britain's first crown colony. The conquest and subjugation of the inland Kingdom of Kandy in 1815-18 brought the entire island under British control. Crown colony status meant that the island's affairs were administered by the Colonial Office in London, rather than by the East India Company that governed India until 1857. Even after the Indian Empire — ruled by a viceroy appointed by the British monarch — was established following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) was not included within its authority. The principal features of government and administration during the first century of British rule were a strong executive — the colonial governor — and a council of official and unofficial members who first served in a solely advisory capacity but were gradually granted legislative powers. An institution of central importance was the Ceylon Civil Service. In the early years, it was staffed primarily by British and other European personnel but then, increasingly and almost exclusively, by Sri Lankans.*

A major turning point in the island's political development was implementation in 1931 of comprehensive reforms recommended by a royal commission headed by the Earl of Donoughmore. The most salient feature of the so-called Donoughmore Constitution, which attempted to reconcile British colonial control of the executive with Sri Lankan aspirations for self-government, was adoption of universal adult suffrage. This was, at that time, a bold experiment in representative government. Before 1931, only 4 percent of the male population, defined by property and educational qualifications, could vote. When elections to the legislature were held in 1932, the colony became the first polity in Asia to recognize women's suffrage. (Japan had adult male suffrage in 1925, but universal adult suffrage came only after World War II. The Philippines, an United States colony, achieved it in 1938.)

Toward the close of World War II, a second royal commission, headed by Lord Soulbury, was sent to Sri Lanka in order to consult with local leaders on the drafting of a new constitution. In its general contours, the Soulbury Constitution, approved in 1946, became the basic document of Ceylon's government when the country achieved independence on February 4, 1948. It established a parliamentary system modelled on that of Britain and quite similar to the constitution adopted by India in 1949. Like Britain, unlike India with its federal arrangement of states, independent Ceylon was, and in the later 1980s remained, a unitary state. The constitution established a parliament headed by the British monarch (represented by the governor general) and two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The latter, like the House of Commons in Britain, had the preponderant role in legislation. The majority party or party coalition in the popularly elected House of Representatives designated the prime minister. Executive power, formally vested in the monarch (in the person of his or her representative, the governor general), was in actuality exercised by the prime minister and his or her cabinet.*

The second constitution, adopted in 1972, represented an attempt on the part of the SLFP-led United Front coalition, which had been elected in May 1970, to create new political institutions that allegedly reflected indigenous values more perfectly than the 1946 constitution. It abolished the Senate and established a unicameral National State Assembly. The assembly was defined as the embodiment of the power of the state, and provisions in the constitution denied the judiciary the authority to challenge its enactments. In addition, the constitution changed the formal name of the country from Dominion of Ceylon to Republic of Sri Lanka. In a controversial measure, the United Front-dominated assembly gave itself two additional years in power beyond its constitutionally defined five-year term (elections were originally scheduled for 1975). Judicial curbs on the executive were also greatly restricted. Through the exercise of a wide range of emergency and special powers, the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike exercised strict control over the political system.*

Aside from the issue of authoritarianism, two extremely controversial aspects of the 1972 constitution were the abandonment of the idea of a secular state, which had been incorporated into the 1946 constitution, and designation of Sinhala as the sole national language. Although the constitution did not make Sri Lanka a Buddhist state, it declared that "the Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster Buddhism while assuring to all religions the rights secured by Section 18 (i)(d) [religious freedom]." Tamils, a predominately Hindu minority, resented the special status given to Buddhism and the nonrecognition of a role for their language in national life.*

In the July 1977 general election, the UNP was swept into power. The new ruling party, led by Jayewardene, won 140 out of 168 seats in the assembly and thus was in a position to initiate substantial revisions of the 1972 constitution. This process it proceeded to undertake by passing the Second Amendment, which established the office of executive president in October 1977. Jayewardene assumed the presidency on February 4, 1978. In November 1977, the UNP and the major opposition parties, with the conspicuous absence of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), convened a select committee to draft further revisions. After conducting a survey on the opinions of various Sri Lankan citizens, it concluded that changes embodied in the Second Amendment were not sufficient to promote substantial reform and recommended that a new constitution be drafted. The new document was adopted by the National State Assembly in mid-August 1978, and went into effect on September 7, 1978. Under its provisions, the legislature chosen in the July 1977 general election was designated the country's new Parliament.*

In the 1990s the government considered drafting a new constitution in which greater powers would be reserved for the provincial governments, a move calculated to address the ethnic conflicts and end the nation's civil war. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Contents of the Sri Lankan Constitution

The 1978 Constitution changed the country's formal name from the Republic of Sri Lanka to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and established a presidential form of government similar to that operating in France under the Fifth Republic. The document contains 172 articles divided into 24 chapters. Like the 1972 constitution, it recognizes the special status of the Buddhist religion (assuring it, again, "foremost place" while guaranteeing the freedom of other religious communities). It differs from its predecessor, however, in granting "national" status to the Tamil as well as Sinhala language although only Sinhala is recognized as the "official" language. The language provisions permit the use of Tamil in administrative business in Northern and Eastern provinces and allow applicants for government employment to use either Tamil or Sinhala in the examination process (though knowledge of Sinhala might be required subsequent to induction into the civil service). In February 1983, Jayewardene announced that English would be recognized as a third national language. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The Constitution recognizes and guarantees a broad range of fundamental rights including: freedom of thought and conscience; religious freedom; freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, or caste; freedom of speech; basic legal protection including freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention; freedom to engage in any lawful occupation; and freedom of movement and travel. These rights are guaranteed to stateless persons resident in Sri Lanka for ten years following promulgation of the Constitution. Exercise of the fundamental rights, however, can be restricted in situations where national security is at risk or when the otherwise legal actions of persons (such as speech or publication) detract from racial or religious harmony or endanger "public health and morality."

The Constitution contains a section devoted to directive principles of state policy. These encompass a broad range of policy goals, including the establishment of a "democratic socialist society" and a just distribution of wealth; economic development; and the raising of cultural and educational standards. The directive principles also include a commitment to decentralizing the country's administration and promoting national unity by eliminating all forms of discrimination. The duties of citizens (including the fostering of national unity) are also enumerated.*

Amendment of the Constitution requires the vote of two-thirds of Parliament. In addition, measures that affect "the independent, unitary, and democratic nature of the state," the Buddhist religion, fundamental rights, or the length of the term of office of president or Parliament must be approved by a popular referendum. Bills judged "inconsistent with the Constitution" cannot become law unless two-thirds of Parliament approve, but such bills can be repealed by a simple majority vote.*

With its five-sixths majority in Parliament following the July 1977 general election, the UNP government of Jayewardene was able to pass a number of controversial constitutional amendments over the objections of the opposition. Some political commentators have suggested that such measures as the Fourth Amendment (December 1982), which extended the life of Parliament for six years, or the Sixth Amendment (August 1983), which obliged members of Parliament to renounce support for separatism, were designed not to strengthen democratic institutions but to prolong the UNP's monopoly of power. *

Branches of the Sri Lankan Government

In Sri Lanka, power is divided between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The executive branch is made up of the president, the prime minister, and the cabinet. The legislative branch is a 225-seat unicameral parliament with members elected by universal suffrage and proportional representation to 6-year terms.. The judicial branch is composed of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, which operate independently of the executive and legislative branches.

The president of the republic is directly elected for a five-year term and serves as head of state and as executive head of government, appointing and heading the cabinet of ministers. The prime minister serves mainly as parliamentary leader. The normal business of legislation is handled by the single-chamber parliament, with representatives elected to five-year terms. [Source: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”, Thomson Gale, 2008; “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”, 2007]

In respect to Sri Lanka’s parliament, voters in twenty-five multi-member electoral districts elect 196 legislators. The remaining 29 are allocated to the various parties according to their share of the national vote. Parliament is the sole lawmaking body and has oversight over most executive decisions, including the decision to declare war. The parliament can also impeach the president, dissolve the cabinet, and dismiss executive officers. The parliament functions through a system of committees that work with and advise the ministries.

Sri Lanka's judiciary consists of a Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, High Court, and a number of subordinate courts. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over all lower courts and consists of eleven justices, including a chief justice, appointed by the president. They serve until retirement at age sixty-five. The Supreme Court is responsible for ensuring that laws do not violate the constitution. [Source: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”, Thomson Gale, 2008]

Head of Government of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a powerful president and a prime minister in a set up that is similar to what the French have. The prime minister and the president are chosen in separate elections. The system, has problems when the president and a prime minister are members of different parties.

The president is both the chief of state and head of government. Under the 1978 constitution, the president of the republic, is the chief of state, head of government, and commander in chief of the armed forces. Responsible to Parliament for the exercise of duties under the constitution and laws, the president may be removed from office by a two-thirds vote of Parliament with the concurrence of the Supreme Court. The president appoints and heads a cabinet of ministers responsible to Parliament. The president's deputy is the prime minister, who leads the ruling party in Parliament. A parliamentary no-confidence vote requires dissolution of the cabinet and the appointment of a new one by the president. The president may summon, suspend, or end a legislative session and dissolve Parliament. Parliament reserves the power to make all laws. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook 2009, Gale]

The president is elected by popular vote for a maximum of two terms of five years each. Among the president’s duties are appointing government officials and initiating legislative proposals. The prime minister serves as the president’s chief deputy. Many of the prime minister’s duties are administration and executive in nature. The prime minister nominates members of parliament to serve as cabinet ministers. The ministers, who are then appointed by the president, lead the nation’s various agencies. [Source: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”, Thomson Gale, 2008]

Executive Branch and Cabinet of Sri Lanka

The executive branch of the Sri Lankan government consists of the president, the prime minister, and the cabinet. The president heads the cabinet and has the power fire ministers, including the prime minister, and suspend parliament. He or she also is commander in chief of the military and has the power to declare a state of emergency. The prime minister heads parliament and runs the day to day affairs of the government. The cabinet can have more than 40 members.

With Parliament's approval, the president appoints the prime minister and in consultation with the prime minister chooses the members of the cabinet. It is the chief executive, rather than the prime minister, who presides over the cabinet's deliberations, and who may assume any ministerial portfolio. The president also has the authority to dissolve Parliament at any time and call for new elections. The president cannot exercise this power, however, if the legislature has been in power for less than a year and does not consent to the dissolution, or if it is considering a resolution to impeach the president. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Cabinet appointed by the president in consultation with the prime minister A striking feature of the governmental system is the huge size of cabinets. The Constitution designates twenty-eight minister-level portfolios, including two (the ministries of defense and plan implementation) held by the president. Additional ministers, however, may be appointed to take responsibility for special areas, such as the prevention of terrorism. District ministers, who play a major role in local government, are also designated. Including deputy ministers, a cabinet at one time may have more than eighty members chosen from the parliamentary ranks of the ruling party. In the late 1980s, ministerial rank and the resources made available through access to budgetary funds were, for individual legislators, an invaluable source of patronage and local level influence.*

Executive branch: chief of state and head of government: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (since November 18, 2019); Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (since November 21 2019). The prime minister is appointed by the president from among members of Parliament for a 5-year term. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

President of Sri Lanka

The president of Sri Lanka serves as head of state and as executive head of government, appointing and heading the cabinet of ministers. The president directly is elected by preferential majority popular vote for a five-year term and is eligible for a second term.

The most important national office is that of the president, who is defined in the Constitution as head of state, chief executive, and commander in chief of the armed forces. Although governmental institutions are divided in the customary way between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, the president's powers as chief executive are formidable compared to those of the legislature. Thus, it cannot be said that the Constitution provides the political system with the benefits of a genuine separation of powers. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The president can announce a national referendum to seek popular approval of proposals of pressing national importance, including bills that have been rejected by Parliament. Other presidential prerogatives include declarations of war and peace, the granting of pardons, and the exercise of broad emergency powers. In the event of a public emergency, the president can invoke the power to enact measures without the consent of Parliament. The legislature, however, must convene no more than ten days after the chief executive's proclamation of an emergency. If a majority of the legislature fails to approve the state of emergency after two weeks, it automatically lapses; it lapses after ninety days if a simple majority of the members of Parliament do not approve its continuation.*

The president is popularly elected for a term of five years. He or she may serve no more than two consecutive five-year terms. The Constitution stipulates, however, that the term of a chief executive who assumes office other than through a normal presidential election will not be counted as one of the two. Whether this means that Jayewardene's first term from 1977 to 1982, which began with his election as prime minister in the 1977 general election, would be counted toward the two-term total was unclear. The Third Amendment to the Constitution, approved in 1982, allows the president to hold a presidential election at any time following his fourth year in office.*

The Constitution states that the president is responsible to Parliament and can be impeached by the legislature if that body approves the measure by a two-thirds vote and the Supreme Court also calls for his or her removal from office. Grounds for impeachment include mental or physical incapacitation, moral offenses, abuses of power, bribery, treason, and blatant violations of the Constitution. The prime minister assumes the responsibilities of the president if the incumbent is disabled or is overseas. Parliament chooses a new president if the incumbent dies or leaves office before the end of his or her term.*

During the mid-1980s, the powers vested by the Constitution in the chief executive, the unprecedented majority that the UNP won in the July 1977 election, the 1982 postponement of a new general election until 1989, and a strong tradition of party discipline provided Jayewardene virtually unchallenged control over Parliament. The Constitution gives the legislature a term of six years. But in November 1982, Jayewardene, elected the previous month to a second six-year presidential term, announced his decision to hold a popular referendum on a constitutional amendment, the fourth, which would extend the life of Parliament from six to twelve years (a general election was due by August 1983). As justification for the amendment, he cited both his popular mandate (he won 52.9 percent of the votes cast in the October 1982 presidential election compared to 39.1 percent for his nearest opponent) and the threat posed by an "antidemocratic , violent and Naxalite group" associated with the opposition SLFP that allegedly planned to seize power and " [tear] up all constitutional procedures." (The term "Naxalite" refers to a leftist, revolutionary and violent movement that emerged in India during the 1960s.) After approval by Parliament and the Supreme Court, the amendment was supported by a narrow 54.7 percent of the voters on December 22, 1982. The fact that the referendum took place during a state of emergency and that there were widespread reports of voter fraud and intimidation caused many to doubt the legitimacy of this procedural exercise. Observers noted, however, that members of the opposition were allowed to express their opinions freely prior to the December 22 vote and were given access to the media, including television. The Constitution stipulates that when the next general election is held, the number of members of Parliament shall be increased from 168 to 196.*

The president has the power to grant a pardon or a stay or commutation of sentence to any offender convicted in any court in Sri Lanka. In cases involving a sentence of death, however, the president is required to seek the advice of both the attorney general and the minister of justice before issuing a pardon. The president also has the authority to pardon the accomplice to any offense, whether before or after the trial, in exchange for information leading to the conviction of the principal offender. *

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (since November 18, 2019).The presidential election was last held on November 16, 2019 (next to be held in 2024). Presidential election results: Gotabaya Rajapaksa elected president; percent of vote — Gotabaya Rajapaksa (SLPP) 52.2 percent, Sajith Premadasa (UNP) 42 percent, other 5.8 percent. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Legislature of Sri Lanka

The Legislative branch of Sri Lanka is comprised of a unicameral parliament with 225 seats. Total of 196 members are directly elected in multi-seat constituencies by proportional representation vote using a preferential method in which voters select three candidates in order of preference. The remaining 29 seats are allocated to other political parties and groups in proportion to share of national vote. Members are elected for and serve five-year terms.

Parliamentary elections were held in Sri Lanka in August 2020 to elect 225 members (Party, percent of votes, district seats, national seats, total seats, +/– seats from 2015 election.
Sri Lanka People's Freedom Alliance (SLFPA): 59.09 percent; 128 seats, 17 seats, 145 seats, +50
Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB): 23.90 percent; 47 seats, 7 seats, 54 seats, New
National People's Power (JVP): 3.84 percent; 2 seats, 1 seat, 3 seats, –3
Tamil National Alliance (TNA): 2.82 percent; 9 seats, 1 seat, 10 seats, –6
United National Party (UNP): 2.15 percent; 0 seats, 1 seat, 1 seat, –105
Tamil National People's Front (TNPF): 0.58 percent; 1 seat, 1 seat, 2 seats, +2
Our Power of People's Party: 0.58 percent; 0 seats, 1 seat, 1 seat, +1
Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal: 0.58 percent; 1 seat, 0 seats, 1 seat, +1
Sri Lanka Freedom Party: 0.57 percent; 1 seat, 0 seats, 1 seat, +1
Eelam People's Democratic Party: 0.53 percent; 2 seats, 0 seats, 2 seats, +1
Muslim National Alliance: 0.48 percent; 1 seat, 0 seats, 1 seat, +1
Tamil People's National Alliance: 0.44 percent; 1 seat, 0 seats, 1 seat, +1
All Ceylon Makkal Congress: 0.37 percent; 1 seat, 0 seats, 1 seat, +1
National Congress: 0.34 percent; 1 seat, 0 seats, 1 seat, +1 [Source: Wikipedia]

Parliamentary elections were held in Sri Lanka in August 2015 to elect 225 members (Party, percent of votes, district seats, national seats, total seats
United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG, led by the UNP): 45.66 percent; seats, 93 seats, 13 seats, 106 seats
United People's Freedom Alliance (UFPA, led by the SLFP) : 42.38 percent; 83 seats, 12 seats, 95 seats
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP): 4.87 percent; 4 seats, 2 seats, 6 seats
Tamil National Alliance (TNA): 4.62 percent; 14 seats, 2 seats, 16 seats
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress: 0.40 percent; 1 seat, 0 seats, 1 seat
Eelam People's Democratic Party: 0.30 percent; 1 seat, 0 seats, 1 seat [Source: Wikipedia] Results of April 2004 parliamentary elections were as follows: SLFP and JVP, 105 seats; UNP, 82 seats; Tamil National Alliance (TNA), 22 seats; National Heritage Party (JHU), 9 seats; SLMC, 5 seats; Up-country People’s Front (UPF), 1 seat; and EPDP, 1 seat. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”, 2007]

The Sri Lanka parliament handles the normal business of legislation. It has the power to make all laws and is the sole lawmaking body. It has oversight over most executive decisions, including the decision to declare war. The parliament can also impeach the president, dissolve the cabinet, and dismiss executive officers. The parliament functions through a system of committees that work with and advise the ministries. A two third majority by the Parliament is needed to amend the constitution. [Source: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”, Thomson Gale, 2008]

The parliament building is designed by the famous Sri Lanka architect Geoffrey Bawa and located on an island in the middle of a man-made lake. The parliament has seen its share of violence. Once opposition members dismantled police barricades and tried to fight their way into the legislative hall after the speaker, the brother of the president, refused to obey a presidential decree suspending parliament. The conflict was finally resolved when the speaker ordered the police to allow the legislators through.

Judicial Branch of the Sri Lankan Government

The judicial branch is composed of the Supreme Court of the Republic and the Court of Appeals, which operate independently of the executive and legislative branches. The Supreme Court consists of the chief justice and nine justices. The court has exclusive jurisdiction to review legislation. The chief justice is nominated by the Constitutional Council (CC), a nine -member high-level advisory body, and appointed by the president. The other justices are nominated by the CC and appointed by the president on the advice of the chief justice; all justices can serve until age 65. Subordinate courts are Court of Appeals; High Courts; Magistrates' Courts; municipal and primary courts , [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Although Sri Lanka's colonial heritage fostered a tradition of judicial freedoms, this autonomy has been compromised since independence by constitutional changes designed to limit the courts' control over the president and by the chief executive's power to declare states of emergency. Also, Parliament's willingness to approve legislation, such as the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act, vested the government in the late 1980s with broad powers to deal with subversives, or those deemed subversive, in an essentially extralegal manner. Observers in the late 1980s reported that the act facilitated widespread abuses of power, including the systematic torture of detainees, because it recognized the admissibility as evidence of confessions to the police not made in the presence of a magistrate. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over all lower courts and is responsible for ensuring that laws do not violate the constitution. Under the Constitution, the highest court is the Supreme Court, headed by a chief justice and between six and ten associate justices. Supreme and High Court justices are appointed by the president. Superior Court justices can be removed on grounds of incompetence or misdemeanor by a majority of Parliament, whereas High Court justices can be removed only by a judicial service commission consisting of Supreme Court justices. The Supreme Court has the power of judicial review; it can determine whether an act of Parliament is consistent with the principles of the Constitution and whether a referendum must be taken on a proposal, such as the 1982 extension of Parliament's life by six years. It is also the final court of appeal for all criminal or civil cases.*

The Supreme Court is authorized to give advisory opinions and has original jurisdiction on all constitutional matters, as well as on such other matters as breach of parliamentary privilege, protection of fundamental rights, election petitions, and other matters over which Parliament has legislative power. [Source: “Cities of the World”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Women in Government in Sri Lanka

Year women obtained the right to vote: 1931.(compared to 1893 in New Zealand and 2011 in Saudi Arabia) [Source: ; Wikipedia

Proportion of seats held by women in national legislatures: 5 (2020, compared to 53 percent in Bolivia, 20 percent in the United States and 3 percent in Kuwait). The figure for Sri Lanka is very low especially considering it has had female presidents and prime ministers. [Source: World Bank ]

It is ironic that women have ruled Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh, countries where the status of women is among the lowest in the world. The women that have taken power in these countries are the widows or daughters of prominent politicians. Even though women have occupied the highest office, there are still few women in middle and lower level government positions.

It is ironic that women in South Asia are treated as second class citizens in the homes but worshiped as goddesses and elected as political leaders. Some scholars attribute this phenomena to a belief in the subcontinent in skakti (feminine power). Stanley Wolpert, a professor of Indian history, told TIME, women leaders may be an "accident of gender" but "over and above everything lese, there's a string worship of the Mother Goddess in South Asia. Subliminally, it's still there in Pakistan, to." Delhi psychiatrist Ashis Nandy told TIME, "There is a strong sense of the matriarchy at play in politics. Some politicians also see women as a bet for containing factions — a good neutral choice."

Sri Lanka has tradition of widows and daughters stepping into political positions held by their assassinated husbands or fathers. One diplomat told the Washington Post in the 1990s when women led Sri Lanka: "In the next round of assassinations, when the mothers are killed, probably the sons" will inherit the political legacies. [Source: Washington Post]

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Leadership roles in Sri Lanka are largely held by men, with some important exceptions. Sri Lanka elected the world's first female prime minister in 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, whose daughter” was the president in 2000. “While this is not indicative of the political power of women in general, it is true that Sri Lankan women have held voting rights since they were instituted in 1931 and have long held certain property rights. The large majority of religious leaders and officiants are also male, while women tend to be overrepresented among their followers. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Governing of Sri Lanka

Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote: “The Sri Lankan state, an artifact of colonial rule, is excessively centralized and politicized; the provinces are governed by agents appointed by the president, and virtually all services — roads, railways, education, health services, tax collection, government-owned corporations, and land registry and allocation — are administered by centrally controlled ministries. Efforts to devolve power and resources to the provinces, including the Tamil Northern Province and Eastern Province, have been opposed by Sinhalese chauvinists, who see devolution as an erosion of Sinhala sovereignty. Members of parliament select the candidates for government positions, including the lowest menial jobs, on the basis of political loyalty. Politicization has eroded the autonomy of the civil service and the judiciary. The JVP insurgency and its popular support can be seen in part as a broad-based rejection of an unresponsive and corrupt political system. |~| [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Although a spectrum of political parties campaign within Sri Lanka, political leadership is almost exclusively drawn from the traditional, propertied elite. Family lineage and caste affiliation figure prominently in selection of candidates at all levels. Since independence, only two parties have drawn the majority of their leadership from the lower classes and challenged the control of the elite: the ultraleft Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, who staged armed insurrections that posed a significant threat to the stability of the nation in 1971 and again between 1987 and 1989, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Since political leaders distribute state-controlled benefits and resources, such as access to employment, quality schools, and even passports, their constituents work to stay in their good graces. These elected leaders, who typically distribute resources preferentially to their supporters, make an effort to be seen as benefactors and are often more personally accessible than many bureaucrats.

Bureaucracy of Sri Lanka

The government and civil service have traditionally been highly centralized and politicized. The Sri Lanka Administrative Service — the main bureaucracy and administrative service of the Government of Sri Lanka — is a direct descendent of British colonial Ceylon Civil Service. Each ministry has a secretary, usually a career civil servant, who provides continuity as ministers and governments change. All Sri Lankans are required to carry a National Identity Card, a police registration certificate and other documents relating to their employment or student status.

The civil service in Sri Lanka was established during the colonial period and in the late 1980s continued to operate in accordance with well-established British precedents. It was hierarchical in structure. At the apex of the hierarchy was a well-defined elite, the Sri Lanka Administrative Service, which was composed of talented men and women chosen by competitive examination. They were well-educated generalists, expected to take a broad perspective in their work in contrast to specialist personnel operating on the lower ranks of the hierarchy. They enjoyed tremendous prestige. Because government employment on practically all levels offered economic security as well as status, competition for civil service and other government positions remained intense. One of the most important sources of Tamil disaffection from the Sinhalese-dominated political system has been their perception that government service opportunities for members of their community were decreasing. This view is borne out by statistics: in the administrative service, the number of Tamil officeholders declined from 11.1 percent of the total during the 1970-77 period to only 5.7 percent during the 1978-81 period. Spokesmen for the Sinhalese majority have asserted that the British traditionally favored the employment of Tamils over Sinhalese in the colonial bureaucracy and that the declining Tamil percentages reflected an equitable redressing of the balance. The percentage during 1978-81, however, was substantially lower than Sri Lankan Tamils' percentage of the total population (12.6 percent in 1985). [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Especially since the early 1970s, the civil service has been subject to intense political pressures. Under the British-style 1946 constitution, the highest-ranking appointed officials in the government were the secretaries attached to each ministry. But after the adoption of the 1972 constitution, secretaries have been political appointees. This change and the dynamics of patron-client politics have compromised both the bureaucracy's claim of political neutrality and the quality of its staff. The power of patronage means that each member of Parliament has jobs, ranging from professional positions like school teachers or engineers, to clerkships and menial labor, which the members can distribute freely to followers. The eclipse of Tamil influence in Parliament has meant that such benefits were not generally available to the Tamil community.*

In the late 1980s, about 25 percent of all employment in Sri Lanka was in the public sector. In addition to the civil service, this proportion included the police, the armed forces, and public corporations, which continued to dominate the economy despite Jayewardene's liberalization policies since 1977.*

Cabinet Positions in Sri Lanka

Minister of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Services Development
Minister of Child Development and Women's Empowerment
Minister of Community Development and Social Inequity Eradication
Minister of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration
Minister of Construction and Engineering Services
Minister of Cultural Affairs
Minister of Defense
Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights
Minister of Education
Minister of Enterprise Development and Investment Promotion
Minister of Environment
Minister of Export Development and International Trade
Minister of Finance and Planning
[Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook 2009, Gale]

Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Minister of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare
Minister of Heath Care and Nutrition
Minister of Higher Education
Minister of Highways and Road Development
Minister of Housing and Common Amenities
Minister of Indigenous Medicine
Minister of Industrial Development
Minister of Internal Administration
Minister of Irrigation and Water Management
Minister of Justice

Minister of Labor Relations and Manpower
Minister of Land and Land Development
Minister of Livestock Development
Minister of Local Govt. and Provincial Councils
Minister of Mass Media and Information
Minister of National Herritage
Minister of Parliamentary Affairs
Minister of Petroleum and Petroleum Resources Development
Minister of Plan and Implementation
Minister of Plantation Industries
Minister of Ports and Aviation
Minister of Posts and Telecommunications
Minister of Power and Energy
Minister of Public Admin. and Home Affairs
Minister of Public Estate Management and Development
Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Service
Minister of Rural Industries and Self-Employment Promotion

Minister of Science and Technology
Minister of Social Services and Social Welfare
Minister of Special Projects
Minister of Sports and Public Relations
Minister of Supplementary Crops Development
Minister of Tourism
Minister of Trade, Marketing Development, Cooperatives, and Consumer Affairs
Minister of Transport
Minister of Urban Development and Sacred Area Development
Minister of Vocational and Technical Training
Minister of Water Supply and Drainage
Minister of Youth Affairs
Minister of Youth Empowerment and Socioeconomic Development
Governor, Central Bank:

Local Government in Sri Lanka

Administrative divisions: Nine provinces — Central, Eastern, North Central, Northern, North Western, Sabaragamuwa, Southern, Uva, Western — and 25 administrative districts [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Many villages are run by gramma niladdari (“village managers”), an appointed position roughly equivalent to a town manager. Each of 25 districts is headed by a government agent (GA) responsible for regional government activities. In colonial days, the GA was virtually overlord of a district; today, democracy has made the position more responsive to local concerns. In 1977 a a system of district ministers was introduced whereby senior members of Parliament usually from a different district oversee development efforts in a district. [Source: “Cities of the World”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

The government agents have traditionally been appointed by the president, with nearly all services — roads, railways, education, health services and tax collection — administered by the central government. This system has traditionally have favored the majority of Sinhalese. Efforts to devolve the power structure and give more responsibilities to the provinces has traditionally been opposed by Sinhalese nationalists.

Because Sri Lanka is a unitary rather than a federal state, local government institutions have had a very limited role in the political process. The country traditionally has been divided into nine provinces, which had played an important administrative role during the British colonial era. The principal local government subdivisions since the early 1980s have been the twenty-four administrative districts. Before 1981 each district contained administrative offices representing most national-level ministries and known collectively as kachcheri (government offices). Two officers of major significance at the district level were the government agent and the district minister. Government agents, appointed by the central government, traced their origins to the colonial era, but the office of district minister, which was filled by individuals concurrently serving as members of Parliament, was created after 1978. Because of the district ministers' access to central government funds for patronage purposes, they tended to diminish the power and influence of the government agents. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In 1981 the kachcheri system and the subdistrict system of elective village and town councils were replaced by district development councils and subdistrict-level units known as pradeshiya mandalaya (divisional council) and gramodaya mandalaya (village council). The councils were created largely to satisfy minority aspirations for local self-government and were designed to exercise a significant measure of autonomy, especially — as the name implies — in the area of economic planning and development. Although the district development councils served in the late 1980s as conduits for central government funds, they also had been granted the authority to collect taxes and manage their own budgets and were given responsibility for educational and cultural activities within their spheres of jurisdiction. Each district council consisted of some members appointed by the central government and others elected by local constituents for four-year terms on the basis of proportional representation. Their deliberations were presided over by the district ministers who were, as mentioned, members of Parliament (they did not in all cases represent in Parliament the district in which they exercised this function); government agents served as council secretaries.*

The subdistrict-level mandalaya, or councils, were designed to promote village-level democracy and provide support for district development council programs. The changes implemented in 1981 affected the 75 percent of the population living in rural areas. Twelve municipal and thirty-eight urban councils continued to function in urban areas in the late 1980s.*

According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders”: “Under the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of July 1987 and the 13th amendment to the constitution, the Government of Sri Lanka agreed to devolve significant authority to the provinces. Provincial Councils are directly elected for 5-year terms. The leader of the council majority serves as the province's chief minister; a provincial governor is appointed by the president. The councils possess limited powers in education, health, rural development, social services, agriculture, security, and local taxation. Many of these powers are shared or subject to central government oversight. As a result, the Provincial Councils have never functioned effectively. Devolution proposals under consideration as a means of finding a political solution to the ethnic conflict foresee a strengthening of the Provincial Councils, with greater autonomy from central control. Predating the accord are municipal, urban, and rural councils with limited powers [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook 2009, Gale].

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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