Sri Lanka is a democratic republic with an executive presidency based on the French model. Under the 1978 constitution, the head of state and government is the President. There is universal adult suffrage with proportional representation; parliamentary and presidential elections are held every six years. Parliament has a single chamber with 225 members. Members are directly elected, but vacant seats occurring during the life of a Parliament go to nominees of the party holding the seat.
Ministers are appointed by the President, who chairs the cabinet and appoints the independent judiciary. Amendments may be made to the constitution, subject to a two-thirds majority in Parliament; however, to amend certain entrenched articles of the constitution approval in a national referendum is also required. The constitution provides for provincial councils.
The Eighteenth Amendment – enacted in September 2010 – removed the limit on the number of terms a President may serve, previously set at two.
After a violent campaign in which at least 70 people died, in the parliamentary elections of October 2000, the ruling People’s Alliance (PA), led by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, won 107 of the 225 parliamentary seats, the United National Party (UNP) 89 and the Marxist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) ten. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was reappointed Prime Minister. However, short of a working majority, the new government was dependent on the support of the smaller parties, and this diverted its attention from new peace initiatives and its economic reform programme.
Parliamentary elections were held in December 2001 after the PA lost its majority in Parliament. The UNP won 109 seats, the PA 77, JVP 16, Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) 15 and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) five. With the support of the TULF and SLMC, the UNP commanded a majority in Parliament, and the President was obliged to appoint UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe Prime Minister and invite him to form a government.
Thus, in due course, President Kumaratunga found herself chairing a cabinet composed entirely of political opponents. The new government was nevertheless determined to pursue the peace process. But as the end of the government’s first year in office approached (when the President had the power to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections), relations between the President and government became increasingly strained. However, both the President and Prime Minister remained committed to the peace process, and in 2002 the government signed a ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and invited Scandinavian countries, led by Norway, to monitor the truce.
In November 2003, the week before the seventh round of peace talks was due to take place, the President sacked three ministers, suspended Parliament and first declared then lifted a state of emergency, calling for a government of national reconciliation, and plunging the country into political crisis. This endured until April 2004 when in a snap election the President’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) – a new alliance with the JVP – took 105 seats and 46 per cent of the votes, while the UNP won 82 seats and the Lanka Tamil State Party (ITAK) 22. President Kumaratunga formed a government and the UPFA’s Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as Prime Minister but, without an overall majority, they would be depending on the support of members of minority parties and any opposition members who crossed the floor.
In the presidential election in November 2005, UPFA leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, with just over 50 per cent of the votes, defeated UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe. The overall turnout was 74 per cent, even though many Tamils boycotted the election in the LTTE-controlled areas in the north and east of the country.
Almost two years before the expiry of his term of office, Rajapaksa called a presidential election in January 2010, when he faced a challenge from former head of the army General (rtd) Sarath Fonseka, who had overseen the military victory against the LTTE that had been declared by the government in May 2009. In a poll with a 75 per cent voter turnout, Rajapaksa was returned to office with 57.9 per cent of the vote; Fonseka received 40.2 per cent of the vote, but contested the election result in the courts. A Commonwealth expert team was present during the election period. At the release of the team’s report, Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that ‘on the day of the election voters were free to express their will’, but shortcomings primarily in the pre-election period meant that overall the election ‘did not fully meet key benchmarks for democratic elections’.
Two weeks after the presidential election, Fonseka was arrested and detained by the military police. A government spokesperson alleged he had been plotting a coup. In August 2010 he was convicted by court martial of participating in political activities while on active service and stripped of his rank, medals and pension. In September the court martial convicted him of arms procurement offences and he was required to resign the parliamentary seat he won in the April 2010 election.
In the parliamentary elections of April 2010, the UPFA won 144 of 225 seats, securing 60.3 per cent of votes cast; the UNP/SLMC electoral coalition took 60 seats (29.3 per cent); ITAK 14; and the Democratic National Alliance seven. Turnout was 61 per cent.
Incumbent President Rajapaksa (with 47.6 per cent of the vote) was defeated by the New Democratic Front Candidate Maithripala Sirisena (51.3 per cent) in the presidential election held on 8 January 2015, in a turnout of 82 per cent. A Commonwealth observer group, led by former President of Guyana Dr Bharrat Jagdeo, concluded that the election result reflected the will of the people of Sri Lanka.