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Sri Lanka - Politics

J. R. JayewardeneUNP 04 Feb 1978 02 Jan 1989
Ranasinghe PremadasaUNP 02 Jan 1989 01 May 1993
D. B. Wijetunga UNP07 May 1993 12 Nov 1994
Chandrika Bandaranaike KumaratungaSLFP12 Nov 1994 19 Nov 2005
Mahinda RajapaksaSLFP19 Nov 2005 09 Jan 2015
Maithripala SirisenaNDF09 Jan 2015xx Nov 2022

The failure to reach consensus around who is fully included in the nation lies at heart of Sri Lankas Democracy and Governance problems. The concept of a single Sri Lankan nation-state with a shared sense of identity tied to a single institutional apparatus that governs and protects all has always been fragile. Elite political competition has fueled ethnically-based majoritarianism. Because of the absence of consensus on the nature of the nation state and the high stakes, zero-sum quality of competition between the two largest southern parties each and every government since the 1980s has foundered on matters related to the resolution of the conflict and associated constitutional changes.

The conflict has resulted in an institutionalized culture of violence. Sri Lankan election campaigns are an "anything goes" type of affair usually involving much violence. The Elections Commissioner's Office monitors the campaign to ensure that it is free and fair. This office, however, is not considered to be very effective and in the past has been subject to political influence. In a change, the Commissioner in 2004 -- Dayanda Dissanayake -- was relatively impartial, but -- sticking with the tradition of his office -- he was not considered effective. There are no campaign funding restrictions in place in Sri Lanka and parties can spend as much as they raise. If there are accusations of bribery, the Elections Commissioner can step in.

With respect to violence, over 50 people were killed in the December 2001 parliamentary campaign, over 25 in the October 2000 parliamentary elections, and almost 50 in the December 1999 presidential election campaign. In general, Sri Lankan police are extremely ineffective in stopping the violence and apprehending those responsible.

Sri Lankan politics since independence have been strongly democratic. Sri Lanka's two major political parties -- the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) -- have historically embraced democratic values, international nonalignment, and encouragement of Sinhalese culture. However, the SLFP-led coalition government under President Rajapaksa, aided by emergency regulations, consolidated political power in the executive and limited media freedom and the role of civil society in Sri Lankan politics.

Two major parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), have generally alternated rule. The UNP ruled first from 1948-56 under three Prime Ministers--D.S. Senanayake, his son Dudley, and Sir John Kotelawala. The SLFP ruled from 1956-65, with a short hiatus in 1960, first under S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and then, after his assassination in 1959, under his widow, Sirimavo, the world's first female chief executive in modern times. Dudley Senanayake and the UNP returned to power in 1965.

In 1970, Mrs. Bandaranaike again assumed the premiership. A year later, an insurrection by followers of the Maoist "Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna" (JVP, or "People's Liberation Front") broke out. The SLFP government suppressed the revolt and declared a state of emergency that lasted 6 years.

In 1972, Mrs. Bandaranaike's government introduced a new constitution, which changed the country's name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, declared it a republic, made protection of Buddhism a constitutional principle, and created a weak president appointed by the prime minister. Its economic policies during this period were highly socialist and included the nationalization of large tea and rubber plantations and other private industries.

The UNP, under J.R. Jayewardene, returned to power in 1977. The Jayewardene government opened the economy and, in 1978, introduced a new constitution based on the French model, a key element of which was the creation of a strong executive presidency. J.R. Jayewardene was elected President by Parliament in 1978 and by nationwide election in 1982. In 1982, a national referendum extended the life of Parliament another 6 years.

The UNP's Ranasinghe Premadasa, Prime Minister in the Jayewardene government, narrowly defeated Mrs. Bandaranaike (SLFP) in the 1988 presidential elections. The UNP also won an absolute majority in the 1989 parliamentary elections. Mr. Premadasa was assassinated on May 1, 1993 by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ("LTTE" or "Tigers"), and was replaced by then-Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, who appointed Ranil Wickremasinghe Prime Minister.

The SLFP, the main party in the People's Alliance (PA) coalition, returned to power in 1994 for the first time in 17 years. The PA won a plurality in the August 1994 parliamentary elections and formed a coalition government with Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as Prime Minister. Prime Minister Kumaratunga later won the November 1994 presidential elections and appointed her mother (former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike) to replace her as Prime Minister. President Kumaratunga won re-election to another 6-year term in December 1999.

In August 2000, Mrs. Bandaranaike resigned as Prime Minister for health reasons, and Ratnasiri Wickramanayake was appointed to take her place as Prime Minister. In December 2001, Ranil Wickremesinghe's UNP party won the parliamentary election, defeating President Kumaratunga's party. Kumaratunga had been elected President in 1994, re-elected in late 1999, and was scheduled to leave office due to term limits in late 2005. With the UNP-controlled Parliament scheduled to be in place until 2006, the PM and the President were scheduled to serve concurrently from late 2001-late 2004.

The fact is that PM Wickremesinghe and President Kumaratunga were virtually born to dislike the other given that they were both the scions of Sri Lanka's two great political dynasties. Kumaratunga, for example, was very conscious that both her father and mother were prime ministers (S.W.R.D. and Sirimavo Bandaranaike), and that her family tree includes major Sri Lankan figures going back generations. The PM, on the other hand, is related to D.S. and Dudley Senanayake, and John Kotelawala, the country's first three prime ministers, and also to President Jayewardene, who led the country from 1977-88. To put it mildly, these two clans have been at each other's throats for decades.

Examples of brutal political infighting between the two clans are legion: Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her allies, for example, played hard ball with Dudley Senanayake and Jayewardene, the then-leaders of the UNP, after she twice won elections in the 1960s and 1970s. Settling scores years later, Jayewardene pushed through a bill in the early 1980s that stripped Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civil rights (they were later restored). Against this backdrop, it is clear that Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe -- who have known each other since they were children -- are simply acting in conformity with the long-standing familial rivalry. Lending substance to this, is the fact that Kumaratunga, Wickremesinghe (to a lesser extent), and their advisers would launch into detailed history lessons -- as if the events took place yesterday -- of how the other side did wrong on this or that issue, thus proving how malicious they are. It was very possible -- if depressing to think about -- that the Kumaratunga/Wickremesinghe conflict could well be passed on to the next generation of Sri Lankan leaders, just as the conflict was passed on to them.

In November of 2003, President Kumaratunga suddenly took control of three key ministries, triggering a serious cohabitation crisis. There was a long track record of cohabitation friction between the two sides. Both sides had their own detailed list of complaints and neither wears a white hat. Now that the president was in control of the defense ministry, analysts said it was unclear if the president was in charge of the peace plan or if it remained in the hands of the prime minister. Given the president's hard-line approach to peace negotiations, her actions cast doubt on whether the nearly two-year-old ceasefire with Tamil Tiger rebels from would hold.

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Page last modified: 26-03-2020 18:54:32 ZULU