Sri Lankan political illness

Militha Mihiranga

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Country Reports

Sri Lanka is a democratic, socialist republic and a unitary state with a semi-presidential government combining presidential and parliamentary forms. It is a parliamentary structure controlled by Sri Lanka’s constitution. A two-thirds majority in the Sri Lankan Parliament must modify the bulk of Sri Lanka’s Constitutional provisions. However, a two-thirds majority and popular vote must change some fundamental clauses, including language, religion, and the designation of Sri Lanka as a unitary state.

The President of Sri Lanka is elected directly by the people to a six-year term as head of state, commander in chief of the military forces, and head of government. The President is accountable to the parliament for how they carry out their duties. A cabinet of ministers comprised of elected members of parliament is appointed and led by the President. When in office, the president is exempt from legal action for any actions taken or omitted to be taken by him in either his official or private capacity. The President’s term restriction, which was two, has been eliminated thanks to the 18th amendment to the constitution, passed in 2010.

The 225-member Parliament of Sri Lanka is unicameral, with 196 elected in multi-seat districts and 29 using proportional representation. The community chooses members using universal (adult) suffrage under a modified form of proportional representation for a six-year tenure. After a parliament has been in session for a year, the president may call for, adjourn, or dissolve it at any time. The parliament must pass all laws. The Prime Minister, who serves as the President’s deputy, heads the ruling party in parliament and is responsible for various executive functions, primarily domestic ones.

The Supreme Court, the highest and ultimate court of appeal, the High Courts, and many other lower courts comprise Sri Lanka’s judicial system. Its incredibly intricate legal structure reflects a variety of cultural influences. About much of the criminal law is based on British law. Roman and Dutch law are both references in fundamental civil law. Marriage, divorce, and inheritance laws are all communal laws. Thesavalamai, Sharia, and Sinhala customary law (Kandyan law) are also used in specific circumstances due to historical everyday practices and religion. The President chooses the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and High Court, judges. Lower court judges are appointed, transferred, and fired by a judicial service commission of the Chief Justice and two Supreme Court justices.

Political Causes of the Ethnic War in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has several different ethnic groups and religions. Most people are Sinhalese, who also speak the language, primarily Buddhists with a small Christian minority. The largest minority group is the Tamils, who speak Tamil and are primarily Hindu but include a few Christians. The Sri Lankan Tamils, who make up the majority in the Northern and some areas of the Eastern Province, and the Indian Tamils, who were brought to Sri Lanka by the British in the 19th century to work on plantations in the Central hill country, are two separate Tamil communities, as was mentioned in the introduction. Muslims make up Sri Lanka’s third significant race; most speak Tamil, although they come from a distinct cultural and religious background from Sri Lanka’s Tamils (which is Islamic). The Burghers and Malays were among the smaller races. They were descendants of Europeans, primarily of Portuguese and Dutch ancestry. Although the British were responsible for uniting Sri Lanka as a governmental entity following the collapse of the Kandyan Kingdom in the 19th century, Western influence on Sri Lanka dates back to 1555. The Sri Lankan political system was fragmented and decentralised before British unity, with many centres of political authority held by the conquering powers’ indigenous inhabitants. In 1948, Ceylon4 won its independence from Great Britain through a peaceful power transfer. Nonetheless, numerous disputes have arisen in the nation since that time, with ethnic hostilities between Tamils and Sinhalese taking centre stage. This section outlines some significant post-independence turning points that have significantly impacted Sri Lanka’s civil war development.

The first elect-Parliament in Ceylon passed the Citizenship Act of 1947, which resulted in the disenfranchisement of almost one million Indian Tamil immigrants who the British had hired to work on the plantations. In 1948, the Citizenship Act was adopted. The Citizenship Act had implications based on both class and ethnicity. The ruling United National Party (UNP), which considered the unionisation of Indian Tamils under a Communist flag a severe political danger, was terrified of it. Despite multiple Sinhalese political parties voting against the Act, G.G. Ponnambalam, the head of the largest Tamil political party, the Tamil Congress, supported the government. The Citizenship Act was a blatant attempt to suppress the opposition parties’ rural support base and cut across all ethnic boundaries (led by left-wing political groups). Two other legislative measures to reorganise the Ceylonese electorate were passed after the citizenship act. The Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act, No. 48 of 1949, and the Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act, No. 3, were expressly directed against the estate Tamils of Indian descent and denied them the voting rights they had previously enjoyed, respectively. 11% of Ceylon’s population, or close to 700,000 people, are now stateless due to the Citizenship Act. The Citizenship Act’s ethnic overtones were not ignored, and one significant effect of the Act was the breakup of the Tamil Congress and the founding of the Federal Party (Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi) in 1949 under the leadership of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, who saw the Act as an example of majoritarianism. The Federal Party promoted a federal system of government. The creation of the Federal Party is regarded as a watershed moment in Ceylonese politics because it recognised the Tamils as a separate nation from the Sinhalese. “The entire edifice of Federalist belief rested on the conviction that the Ceylon Tamils constituted a separate, distinct nation,” according to the Federalist website. With a platform of federalist principles and the devolution of power, the Federal Party ran for office in the 1952 elections. Still, the results were dismal: the party won just two seats. This demonstrated that Ceylonese Tamils had rejected the idea of federalism in favour of fighting for their rights within the current political system. It is evident that up to this point, the Tamils chose to pursue their political aspirations within the confines of the pre-existing constitutional structure. This would eventually alter, however, and the Federal Party would emerge as a significant political rival to succeeding national parties that were primarily Sinhalese. The Tamil Congress was supplanted as the principal minority party by the Federal Party in 1956. 

Political steadfastness

Sri Lanka combines a directly elected executive presidency with a parliamentary democracy. Conflicts between the president and prime minister have been widespread when different parties control the two positions, but the presidency usually wins. A unicameral legislature has a five-year term that is up for election. A method of proportional representation is used to elect 196 of the 225 members of parliament directly. At the same time, the other 29 are distributed to parties and organisations according to their share of the vote.

The Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance (SLPFA), which is made up of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), and 15 smaller parties, won 145 of the 225 seats in the 2020 parliamentary elections. The alliance remained the most prominent political force in parliament in July 2022 but has fewer members after 41 legislators decided to run as independents in April.

Four political parties dominate the political scene. As Mahinda Rajapaksa quit his initial political vehicle, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), with 44 lawmakers, the SLPP’s ranks considerably grew in 2018. In the same year, Mahinda Rajapaksa became the party’s new leader. Around 75% of Sri Lanka’s voters are Buddhist Sinhalese, and the party advocates a conservative stance favouring Sinhalese nationalism.

Former president Maithripala Sirisena presently serves as the leader of the SLFP, founded in 1951. Mr Sirisena promised significant governance changes during the 2015 presidential campaign, including changes to the presidential system and anti-corruption initiatives. During his administration (2015–2019), he did succeed in limiting the presidency to just one five-year term. Still, ongoing conflicts with the then-prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, significantly hampered his reform plan.

Founded in 1946, the United National Party (UNP) is headed by Mr Wickremesinghe. The party enjoys the backing of numerous corporate executives and receives significant support from wealthier, more affluent, and Westernized metropolitan areas. Following the 2015 legislative elections, Mr Wickremesinghe and the SLFP, its longtime foe, formed a National Unity Cabinet.

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