The Parliament of Sri Lanka has seen many transformations during the last seven decades. Born as an extended reincarnation of the two State Councils from 1931-1936 and 1936-1947, the Ceylon Parliament was established in 1947, on the eve of independence.
The Ceylon Parliament became the Sri Lanka National State Assembly in 1972 under the first Republican Constitution and was renamed Parliament of Sri Lanka in 1978 under the second Republican Constitution.
The Parliament, under the Westminster system shared power with the Executive and Judiciary and parliamentary powers underwent changes with the introduction of two Constitutions and several amendments that were enacted from time to time. While the Parliament won the respect of the people as the symbol of democracy most of the time, there were occasions when the August House was accused, with valid reasons, for subversion of democracy.
Parliamentary powers were curtailed to a large extent with the introduction of the Executive Presidency in 1978. Assuming power after the 8 January 2015 Presidential Election, President Maithripala Sirisena boldly attempted to transfer most of his executive powers to the Parliament during the first 100-Days of the new consensual government. However, the Supreme Court ruled that most of those powers could not be transferred to the Parliament without a National Referendum. Despite this, President Maithripala Sirisena succeeded in transferring several powers to Parliament under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. He has set a record as the leader who did more than anybody else to empower Parliament at the cost of his own power under the Executive Presidency. Addressing the special session held to mark the 70th Anniversary of Parliament, President Maithripala Sirisena urged the political parties to set aside divisions and uphold the sovereignty of the people, which has been preserved for seven decades. He also said his vision was to establish a new Constitution devoid of prejudice, which enhanced unity and strengthened Parliament.
“The passing of the 1978 Constitution created an executive presidency with unlimited powers and authority. It was an action that limited the powers of Parliament in a way, but was not as bad as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. The 18th Amendment put the Parliament in a very difficult position, but the current government passed the 19th Amendment and was able to repeal the 18th Amendment. It was a significant move we made to strengthen Parliamentary democracy,” the President said. Political leaders including the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Opposition Leader, R. Sampanthan emphasized the imperative need for a lasting political solution through a new Constitution.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said the Sri Lankan Parliament safeguarded democracy all this time while the terrorists tried to destroy democracy. He pointed out that the present government has taken steps to strengthen parliamentary democracy through the enactment of several acts and the enactment of the 19th Constitutional Amendment vested more power in the Parliament.
While the President, Prime Minister, and Opposition Leader spoke at length about democratic achievements, People’s United Front Leader, Dinesh Gunawardena, and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayaka used the forum to pinpoint the failures of the Parliament to safeguard democratic rights. Gunawardena lamented about the non-recognition of 50 odd Joint Opposition members. Dissanayaka said the Parliament was also the place where democracy had been strangled on some occasions.
In a hard hitting speech, he said, “If the walls of the chamber could speak they will confirm what I am saying. This is the place where democracy has been manipulated by those who ruled this country from time to time. This place has a dubious reputation as a place responsible for the countries ills.”
The Parliament faced many serious problems due to the instability of the government. The first Parliament to last the full five year term was the government of Dudley Senanayake (1965-1970). Dudley Senanayake was also the leader of the shortest tenure of Parliament (March 1960 – July 1960). One example of the anti-democratic acts of Parliament was the taking away of the civic rights of former Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, though the error was rectified later.
The 70th Anniversary is also an occasion to salute the giants of Parliament, including those who served in two State Councils. They include D.B. Jayatilaka, Ponnambalam Arunachalam, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, J.R. Jayewardene, N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena, Pieter Keuneman, D.S. Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake, Leslie Gunawardana, S.A. Wickramasinghe, T.B. Jayah, C. Suntharalingam, P. de S. Kularatne, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, C.W.W. Kannangara, Ranasinghe Premadasa, M.D. Banda, Vivienne Goonewardena, I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla, Kusuma Gunawardena, A.C.S. Hameed, and many others.