The Politics of the Status Quo in Sri Lanka

Published date01 June 2024
AuthorP. Sahadevan
Date01 June 2024
Subject MatterSpecial Section on South Asia in and after the 1980s
The Politics of the Status Quo in
Sri Lanka
P. Sahadevan1
Resistance to political change is a hallmark of Sri Lankan politics since the 1980s. Thus, the polity has
been able to sturdily maintain the status quo. Linking contemporary politics with the political legacies
of the 1980s, the article argues that by providing continuity to the 1978 constitution, Sri Lanka’s politi-
cal system has become a hostage to the status quo. This is shown in the analysis of the functioning of
democracy, and ethnic conflict and peace-making. The rise of illiberal democracy is traced to the pre-
sent constitution and the centralizing tendencies of the J.R. Jayewardene regime. While some succes-
sive power-crazed leaders have nurtured illiberalism, others have undertaken a limited constitutional
reform. Yet, none of them have rejected illiberalism altogether and shown commitment to a liberal
constitutional order. Likewise, the debate on political solution is centred on the 13th Amendment to
the Sri Lankan Constitution. Both the government and opposition leaders have a shared interest in fail-
ing every peace initiative and denying a permanent political solution. Together they form a barrier to
comprehensive political reform in the country.
Illiberalism, political solution, liberal constitutional order, 13th Amendment, Constitution of 1978,
centralization of powers
Sri Lanka, as a nation, is wedded to the past. While the influence of ancient history permeates society to
cause deep divisions along ethnic lines (see Kemper, 1991; Tambiah, 1992), the regressive policies and
centralized governance system, adopted in 1978 and consolidated in the 1980s, have defined the nature
of contemporary polity. There is, thus, continuity in the political system: compared to parliamentary
democracy that lasted for 30 years (1948–1977), the present executive presidential system (1978-),
despite all the ills and unpopularity, is deeply entrenched in the nation. As Sri Lankan leaders prefer the
status quo, barriers and resistance to a systemic change have become strong. The country has an
embedded political culture of adoring illiberal policies, practising regressive politics, and thwarting or
Original Article
Studies in Indian Politics
12(1) 91–103, 2024
© 2024 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/23210230241235362
1 Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India
Corresponding author:
P. Sahadevan, Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New
Delhi 110067, India.

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