Sri Lanka: Constitutional reform likely after landslide election victory

By Dr Michael Breen
McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Social and Political Science, University of Melbourne

The 2020 Sri Lankan parliamentary election has overwhelmingly consolidated the power of the Rajapaksa family.

With President Gotabaya, his elder brother Mahinda the current prime minister, another brother Basil, the party founder, and Mahinda’s son Namal, the presumed heir to the throne, the Sri Lankan Cabinet will be well stocked.

The huge win by their incumbent Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), with 64% of the seats, has also put them in the position to make major constitutional changes.

Election in a pandemic

The election was originally scheduled in April but was twice postponed on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the government bought the numbers down and created a reasonably safe environment in which to vote.

Over 70% of eligible voters participated, down from 81% at the last parliamentary election in 2015.

Numerous precautions were taken to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 during the election. In fact, the Chairman of the National Election Commission was so confident that that they had taken every necessary measure, he gave a “guarantee that voting will be 100 per cent corona free”.

In this context, a voter turnout of 70%, is impressive.

Collapse of the opposition

The return of the Rajapaksas became unstoppable in November 2019, when Gotabaya was elected president. Soon after he appointed his brother Mahinda as the prime minister.

Mahinda and Gotabaya are credited by many with ending the Sri Lankan civil war during their tenure as president and defence minister respectively.

But they were turfed out of power in 2015 following a split within their own party on account of their increasingly nepotistic, corrupt and authoritarian practices.

Their return in late 2019 followed the devastating Easter Sunday terrorist bombing that exposed the deep rift between the then president Sirisena and then prime minister Wickremesinghe, who were from opposing parties. It led to the collapse of the coalition government. Sri Lankan voters were swayed by the politics of fear and elected a former military strongman on a promise of security.

This parliamentary election gives a further mandate to the Rajapaksas.

Their victory was helped no doubt by the split in the main opposition party, United National Party (UNP). UNP Chair and former prime minister, Wickremesinghe, had refused to vacate the party’s leadership after more than 25 years at the helm, and the new guard, led by Sajith Premadasa (himself the son of a former president) ran out of patience. They established an alliance, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), which was originally sanctioned by the UNP but ended up in direct competition.

The UNP fared poorly, winning just one seat with around two percent of the vote. Its new rival, or successor depending on your perspective, has become the new major opposition, securing the second most seats with 54 from around 24% of the vote.

Constitutional reform

The Rajapaksas campaigned for a two-thirds majority in Parliament and have got their wish - barely. With 145 seats, plus five from coalition partners, in a 225 seat parliament they are able to unilaterally change the constitution.

They have already stated their distaste for the 19th amendment to the constitution, passed shortly after their defeat in 2015. This amendment reduces the powers of the president, among other things, and empowers the prime minister. They claim it is unworkable.

But in the background is the 13th amendment, which devolved powers to nine provincial councils with the primary intention of providing autonomy to the Tamil people in the north of the country.

The Rajapaksas have consistently opposed devolution – let alone federalism, which is the demand of the major Tamil political alliances – and there is a real risk that the 13th amendment will be repealed too.

The Tamils’ position in parliament is now also weaker. The main Tamil alliance, the TNA, won ten seats, down from sixteen in 2015. In past years it could pool its vote with the UNP to protect devolution, but it will not be able to this time.

The Rajapaksas are also unlikely to progress reconciliation with the Tamil community. In fact, Gotabaya has appointed many military officers to quasi-executive positions, and he himself has been accused of war crimes. They have virtually no support in the north of the country.

The new government plans to resolve ethnic grievances indirectly through economic development. This may help, but it fails to address the Tamil’s most fundamental demands and is likely to occur as part of an increasing “Sinhalisation”, or “Buddhisisation”, of the state, which will itself imperil any development gains achieved in the north of the country.

Banner image: Then-president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, during a visit in Russia in 2011. Source: Alexander Nikiforov via Wikimedia Commons


politics; election; race Politics; Election; Race south-asia; sri-lanka South Asia; Sri Lanka

Election Watch: Past Editions