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Brief history of Parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka

There will be a special session in Parliament today, to mark the 70th anniversary of Parliamentary democracy flourishing in Sri Lanka.

Parliament established prior to independence under the Soulbury Constitution, was the legislative body of British Ceylon and Dominion of Ceylon, replacing the State Council.

The First Parliament, the House of Representatives of then Ceylon, ceremonially met at the inaugural session on October 14, 1947 at the Independence Square with Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester with the First Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake. It was the formal ceremony to mark the beginning of ‘Self-Rule’.

According to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Speakers from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation would be present to mark the occasion. Senior politicians would also be present on the occasion.

Making reference to the achievements the country had made, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya had observed that Sri Lanka has upheld Parliamentary democracy without interruption for seven decades despite the fact the country had faced two failed military coup attempts in 1960, and 1971 coupled with insurrection / youth unrest and then the 1989 revolt.

The country also suffered internal strife for almost three decades within this period, but still Parliamentary democracy prevails, earning admiration from the world, including the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU). Today, it stands as a role-model for the rest of the world.

Prior to the creation of Parliament or the House of Representative, Sri Lanka, then Ceylon experienced the establishing of the first Legislature; the Executive Council and the Legislative Council on March 13, 1833, based on the recommendation of the Colebrook-Cameron Commission.

The Governor of Ceylon presided over the Executive Council Meetings which was composed of the Colonial Secretary, Officer Commanding the Military Forces, the Attorney General, the Auditor General and the Treasurer. Though it was first composed only of British Officials, with the passage of time, natives were elected to the Legislative Council, and the local representative rose from 16 Members at the beginning to 49 Members.T he right to cast vote at an Election, was reserved to those qualified. That Legislative Council was dissolved in 1931 and the Ceylon State Council with more powers replaced it, with 101 members elected by the public enjoying the universal adult franchise, provided by the Donoughmore Constitution.

The election for the first Parliament was held from August 23 to September 20,1947 to determine the membership of the first Parliament. That Parliament was dissolved on April 8, 1952. The term of that Parliament was four years, five month and 24 days. The elections were held on 23,25,26, 27, 28, 30 August and 1, 4,.6,8,9,10,11,13, 15, 16, 17,18 and September 20,1947.

Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, won independence on February 4, 1948. But before that, based on the Soulbury Commission recommendations, steps were taken to dissolve the State Council and establish a bicameral Parliament in 1947: the Westminster model with an upper house and a lower house.

The lower house referred to as the House of Representatives, (Parliament) had 95 members elected directly by the people at the election and six nominated members to compose 101 Members of the House of Representatives. (This number was increased to 157 in 1960). The Upper House or the Senate as we all know had 30 members. Out of this, 15 were elected by the House of the Representatives, and the other 15 were nominated by the Governor General.

Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike feared to contest the 1960 March and July General Elections. But the results of the 1960, July General Election was a big victory for the SLFP, and it was the Senate that paved the way for Mrs Bandaranaike, as the SLFP leader to enter Parliament and form the government and run the affairs of the country as Prime Minister operating from the Senate. ( (She is claimed to be the first Woman Prime Minister in the World).

She scrapped, that very Senate on October 2, 1972, she herself was a member from 1960 July until she contested the Attanagalla seat in the 1965 General Election.

With the promulgation of the very first indigenous Constitution on May 22, 1972 known as Republican Constitution, the National State Assembly with 168 elected Members, replaced the House of Representatives. The 1978 Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, promulgated under the UNP Government led by the First Executive President, J.R. Jayawardene, replaced that National State Assembly with Parliament of Sri Lanka with the enactment of the Constitution now in force from 1977.

The first Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake, who is also referred to as the Father of the Nation, died suddenly on March 22, 1952. His untimely death, gave room to friction within the rank and file of the UNP and Dudley Shelton Senanayake appointed by the Governor General Soulbury, and it is claimed that appointment was a positive response to a request made by Premier D.S. from the Governor.

But though accepted Premiership, Dudley was keen to test the will of the people and the Government was thus dissolved. He and his Party UNP was elected at the General Election. He resigned from the post of Prime Minister and was succeeded by Sir John Kotalawala. Then on the results of the 1956 April Election, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister.

The promulgation of the 1978 Constitution gave a new lease of life to the Parliamentary system of Government and the number of Members to Parliament increased to 225, and the Members were elected on the preference vote. Today, Parliament of Sri Lanka consists of 225 members. While 196 Members are directly elected by the people at an election, 29 are elected from the National Lists allocated to the political parties and the independent groups based on the share each party receives at the election. They are elected for a five-year term on the proportional representation empowering them to make all laws of the land.