Sri Lanka legislative election, 2015

Sri Lanka held its legislative election on 17 August. The election was billed by the Western media, such as BBC, as a fight between the premier appointed by the incumbent president and the ex-president whom the current one defeated.

The United People Freedom Alliance, led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, won just 95 seats out of 225. The United National Party (UNP) of the premier, Ranil Wickremesinghe, won 106. This is good news for President Maithripala Sirisena, who is actually of the same party as Rajapaksa, but defeated him at the head of a pre-electoral coalition consisting of the UNP, and parties representing ethnic minorities, including Tamils.

Official results at are different from those in the BBC report, although they agree on the scale of the UNP lead.

In the preceding legislative election, in 2010, the United People Freedom Alliance won 144 seats (60.3% of the vote) to 60 for the UNP (29.3% of votes).

Given that the president has the authority to dissolve the legislature, I was surprised that Sirisena did not go to the polls earlier following his victory in January. I believe the legislative term is six years (is that the longest anywhere for a first/sole chamber?); the preceding election had been in April, 2010.

The system of government is president-parliamentary. That is, the premier is responsible to the legislative majority, but also subject to dismissal by the president. In the case of Sri Lanka, the powers of the presidency are enormous, and one of Sirisena’s campaign promises was to reduce presidential power. It is unclear to me what, if any progress, has been made in this front (beyond what JD reported here), or is likely to be made.

Choosing executive format in Sri Lanka and Mauritius

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As previously mentioned on this blog, Sri Lanka recently elected Maithripala Sirisena as president. Among his campaign promises was a pledge to initiate a series of constitutional reforms, including to the judiciary, parliament’s electoral system, as well as the reform of his own post, the executive presidency. Though his manifesto is a little vague[1], it seems the intended reform is a return to parliamentarism.

Sri Lanka adopted semi-presidentialism in 1977, with the first direct presidential elections being held in 1982. The current constitution puts the president at the centre of the political system. Specifically, it is president-parliamentary, the semi-presidential variant which empowers the president both to appoint and to fire the cabinet, which is also subject to parliamentary confidence. This executive format has combined with other institutions to make for an exceptionally powerful presidency – some common in such systems (such as a dissolution power), other unusual among democracies of any executive format (such as the ability to call and set the date for a snap presidential election, as well as the ban on MP defection, which has allowed presidents to remove dissident MPs from their party from parliament, not to mention the recent amendment allowing a president to run for a third term).

This constitutional arrangement has been a source of contention for most of its existence; in fact, abolition of the executive presidency and a return to parliamentarism has already been promised by various politicians since the 90’s, when Chandrika Kumaratunga was twice elected on that very platform. The new constitution which consequently emerged from multi-party talks was shelved by the withdrawal of the United National Party from the talks, preventing the necessary 2/3 majority from materialising. Sirisena’s constitutional reform proposals face the same challenge; although his broader agenda seems to be picking up momentum in parliament, where he has secured a majority as a result of defections, his new coalition still falls far short of the necessary supermajority. If his proposals fail to pass, calling a snap parliamentary election looks like the obvious strategy.

Interestingly, voters in neighbouring Mauritius were recently offered a constitutional reform in the opposite direction. Like Sri Lanka, the country was a Commonwealth Realm before becoming a republic, but it is still governed under its inherited parliamentary system. Its electoral system is multiple-seat plurality or bloc voting (also known on this blog as Multiple Non-Transferable Vote or MNTV) along with a small number of members appointed from among the highest-voted losing candidates in order to ensure ethnic and religious minority representation. Over the last decades, elections have increasingly been fought between pairs of variable pre-electoral coalitions.

The 2010 general election was won by the Alliance de l’Avenir, consisting of Labour (PTR), PMSD and MSM, which faced the MMM-led Alliance du Coeur. The Alliance d’Avenir dissolved in 2012, leaving Labour governing alone. Before calling the December, 2014 election, Labour forged an alliance with MMM, with at its heart an agreement to establish a semi-presidential ‘Second Republic’, an idea which has been put forward before. Though the proposal is said to be inspired by the French model (as it had been in Sri Lanka), it, too, differs from it significantly. It would have elected the president, along with a vice-president, by plurality for a seven-year term (in France, it was reduced to five in 2002), while seemingly increasing the president’s control over the cabinet to a level higher than standard premier-presidentialism,[2].

Under the agreement, if the alliance were to achieve the necessary three-quarters majority in parliament, the constitution would be amended to bring about the change, with Labour leader, Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam resigning to present himself as a presidential candidate and MMM leader Paul Berenger would replace him as Prime Minister. In the event, the Labour-MMM alliance lost the election to the opposition Alliance Lepep, led by MSM’s veteran politician and longtime prime minister, Anerood Jugnauth. As it stood opposed to the ‘Second Republic’ proposal, the Alliance Lepep’s victory puts it off the agenda for the foreseeable future.

[1] From Sirisena’s manifesto: “The new constitution structure would be essentially an Executive allied with the Parliament through cabinet instead of the present autocratic Executive Presidential System”, which I read as parliamentarism, but does not explicitly rule out that the emasculated presidency will remain directly elected.

[2] “The Prime Minister shall give effective consideration to any recommendation of the President to appoint and revoke a Minister.” Some commentators have argued this amounts to president-parliamentarism.