Why is Sri Lanka sometimes not classed as semi-presidential?

When I was a student of comparative politics, I learnt that Sri Lanka was semi-presidential. Therefore, when I started studying semi-presidentialism systematically Sri Lanka was always one of the first on my list of semi-presidential countries. However, some people do not include Sri Lanka in their equivalent lists. For example, Siaroff (European Journal of Political Research, 2003) classes Sri Lanka alongside South Korea and Guyana in a category which he calls “Countries with a popularly elected head of state and a separate head of government (prime minister), with the latter not accountable to the legislature” (p. 297). Also, Hellwig and Samuels (British Journal of Political Science, 2007) class Sri Lanka as presidential, even though their definition of semi-presidentialism is very close to the one adopted in this blog: “both branches of government are directly elected, but the head of government (the prime minister) is accountable to the legislature” (p. 72). As a result, they class both Ireland and Russia as semi-presidential. (And how authors classify these two countries is always a good litmus test of whether their definition of semi-presidentialism is consistent with the one used here). So, why do some authors not classify Sri Lanka as semi-presidential?

Sri Lanka is governed by its 1978 constitution. This constitution was deliberately modeled on the French constitution. Indeed, there is an interesting book that looks at the French origins of the 1978 constitution – A. Jeyaratnam Wilson. 1980. The Gaullist System in Asia: The Constitution of Sri Lanka, 1978. London: Macmillian.

The constitution is very long and wordy. Also, the president enjoys considerable powers. (Both elements, by the way, showing that the French model was only an influence and that the wording of the French constitution was not copied in the same way that some African countries have copied it). All the same, to me, the country is clearly semi-presidential.

Art 30 (2) establishes the direct election of the president.
Art. 43 (1) establishes a Cabinet of Ministers that is collectively responsible and answerable to parliament. (Art. 44 (3) also mentions responsibility to the parliament).
Art 43 (3) refers to the position of prime minister, as do a number of other articles.
Art. 49 (2) states that if parliament passes a vote of no-confidence in the government, then the Cabinet of Ministers shall “stand dissolved” and the president shall appoint a new Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers.

Together, these clauses make it clear that the prime minister, as part of the cabinet, is responsible to the legislature. So, Siaroff’s classification seems problematic. (In a previous post, I showed that this is true of Guyana as well).

One reason why Sri Lanka may be classed as presidential is Art. 43 (2), which states that the president is the head of the Cabinet of Ministers. This clause also notes that if the Cabinet is dissolved, then the president remains in power. In other words, even though the president is a member of the cabinet and the cabinet is responsible to the legislature, the president is not responsible to the legislature. (Hellwig and Samuels, like Siaroff, class Namibia as presidential. Namibia is another country where the president is head of government. However, Art. 41 of the 1990 constitution makes all members of the government individually and collectively responsible to the legislature. See a previous post. If this is the rationale, then at least Hellwig and Samuels are consistent).

The only other reason I can think of why Sri Lanka is not classed as semi-presidential concerns a proposal for constitutional reform in 2000. At that time, President Bandaranaike presented to parliament a bill with the text of a new constitution. The constitution would have established a presidential regime. The text is available here. However, the bill lapsed. A subsequent referendum was never held and Sri Lanka continues to be governed by the 1978 document, which, to my mind, is semi-presidential. That said, when Googling, it is quite easy to mix up the 1978 official constitution and the 2000 proposed constitution. This may account for some of the confusion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *