Where were you Rule of Law/Democracy preachers in Sri Lanka: 1982 Referendum

We are a little confused with democracy & good governance in Sri Lanka of late. Everything we deem as democratic & good governance is exactly the opposite being promoted & advocated. We are living in strange times. Suddenly paragons of virtue appear sending their diplomatic demarches while these very countries are bombing countries to the stone age & leaving millions of people in starvation. But then when they hold the laurels for international power, who are we to complain about their hypocrisy. Nonetheless, we can at best highlight their hypocrisy, not that they care any too hoots about it. However, for the naïve that fall for these democratic rule of law slogans purely on their inability to keep abreast of world affairs, here’s one example of the flouting of democracy by the very party that is promoted as being its custodian in Sri Lanka!

In 1977 General Elections were held & UNP returned to power with a landslide victory winning 140 of the 168 seats. UNP Leader JR Jayawardena became the Prime Minister. SLFP was reduced to 8 seats while TULF won 17 seats.

Immediately after coming to power in 1977 as Prime Minister, JR Jayawardena decided to change the constitution & introduce a new constitution with an Executive Presidency and a new election system known as the proportional representation system. The constitution was passed in 1978 & JR Jayawardena became Executive President from 4 February 1978 (his first term as President was to be considered from this day onwards (as per Article 160), which meant that 6 years lapsed in February 1984 though the first election for Executive President was four years later in October 1982.

He was to face elections in 1984 & instead of doing that what does JR Jayawardena decide to do – bring a 3rdamendment to the constitution which gave him right to seek re-election after 4 years as President & this Bill was passed in August 1982 two months before the Presidential Election. This was how UNP has been historically tweaking the constitution for its own personal benefit. So without going for elections in 1984, JR brings an amendment allowing him to have elections after 4 years & holds elections in 1982 & gives himself a further 6 years as president. Thus, JR was President from 1978 to 1988 (10 years)

So PM JRJayawardena elected in 1977 changes the constitution in 1978 holds a Presidential Election in 1982 & becomes President giving him a further 6 years in power while calling for a referendum in 1982 December to extend the term of Parliament by another 6 years without holding Parliamentary elections in August 1983. 

Voters were denied their right to vote & UNP went on to rule legislature from 1977 to 1989. 

JR Jayawardena/UNP ruled from 1977 to 1988 holding the 1st Presidential election in 1982 & a referendum extending Parliament by 6 years in 1982 without holding a parliamentary election in 1983. This was a violation of people’s fundamental rights.

Parliamentary Elections were to be held in August 1983 but instead of holding Parliamentary elections in 1983 – a referendum was held in 1982 extending Parliament by a further 6 years.

In 1982 there were two elections

  1. 20 October 1982 – 1st Presidential Election (to elect first Executive President) 
  2. 22 December 1982 – Referendum to extend parliament for 6 years

It now makes perfect sense – create a new constitution, have its first election in October 1982 & become the Executive President then without holding the Parliamentary election in 1983 hold a referendum in December 1982 & extend the term of Parliament by another 6 years without holding proper parliamentary elections. The referendum became the 1st time the term of parliament was extended by a referendum. Nowhere in the world had a referendum being held to extend the term of Parliament. Not a whine from the proponents of democracy against this flouting of the people’s right to elect their leaders.

Even the West must have envied JRJ for that!

The obstacles were also dealt with. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s civic rights were removed on some frivolous charge preventing her from contesting elections for 7 years. This left Hector Kobbekaduwa to contest as SLFP Presidential Candidate. Note the actions of the UNP – immediately after expelling Mrs Bandaranaike from Parliament the UNP amended the Elections Act & Presidential Elections Act to prohibit persons expelled from parliament participating in any elections during the disqualification period. She wasn’t even allowed to appeal against the ban. Isn’t this so like the insertion to the 19a denying contesting presidential elections thrice. The 1982 amendment was to ensure Mrs.B could not contest & the 2015, 19a was to prevent Mahinda Rajapakse from recontesting. How can a constitution be tweaked for personal & political agendas?

JRJ government resolved to amend the Elections Act and the Presidential Elections Act to prohibit any persons who had been expelled from parliament from participating in any elections to any offices during the disqualification period.

The 1982 Presidential Elections

  • 6 candidates contested (UNP, SLFP JVP, LSSP, NSSP, Tamil Congress)
  • 6m cast their votes (6,602,617)
  • JR Jayawardena won 3.4m votes (3,450,811) – 52.91% of votes cast
  • SLFP candidate Hector Kobbekaduwa secured 25,48,438 votes – 39% of votes
  • July 1983 riots (9 months after JRJ voted President)
  • July 1987 signing of Indo-Lanka Accord & arrival of Indian Peace Keepers

6 candidates contesting Presidential elections in 1982

  1. J R Jayewardene (UNP) – 3,450,811 or 52.91 percent.
  2. H S R B. Kobbekaduwa (SLFP) – 2,548,438 or 39.07 percent.
  3. Rohana Wijeweera (JVP) – 273, 439 or 4.19 percent.
  4. G G Ponnampalam (ACTC) – 173,934 or 2.67 percent.
  5. Dr Colvin R de Silva (LSSP) – 57,532 or 0.88 percent.
  6. Vasudeva Nanyakara (NLSSP) – 17,005 or 0.26 percent.

Incidentally, the general public pulse at the time was that JR would lose the elections. However, JRJ won giving him the mandate to rule for another 6 years. Incidentally both elections were marred by allegations : rigging, ballot box stuffing, displaying of electoral symbols, UNP goon squads outside every polling booth, intimidation prevented some polling agents from being present.

The manner that UNP has tweaked the constitution for its personal benefit via constitutional amendments can be seen in the 4th amendment presented to parliament on 5 November 1982 to extend parliament by 6 years until 1989. To make this possible JR brought the Referendum Act No 7 of 1981 on 27 February 1981 becoming operational from 10 August 1982 & published by an Extraordinary Gazette 219/2 on 14 November 1982 just a month before the Referendum.

The Supreme Court passed the bill by a 7 bench voting 4-3 in favor but requiring a referendum (Article 83) The Bill was passed with 142 voting for & 4 voting against including Anura Bandaranaike.

Island-wide referendum was held on 22 December 1982. Elections Commissioner at the time was Chandananda de Silva.

The Question posted to the voter for a Yes No answer was

Do you approve the Bill entitled the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution published in Gazette Extraordinary No 218/23 of November 13, 1982, which provides inter alia that unless sooner dissolved the First parliament shall continue until August 4, 1989, and no longer and shall thereupon stand dissolved”

In another déjà vu of sorts, JR claimed the SLFP was trying to assassinate him & used that as an excuse to declare emergency after the Presidential Election in October 1982 and he ensured that the state of emergency prevailed throughout the December 1982 referendum which meant the whole country was under UNP thug-rule.

Yet another example of bringing Bills & amending the constitution by the UNP was the February 1979 2ndamendment if a MP was expelled from party he could appeal to the Parliamentary Committee which gave the Party an upper hand over unruly MPs!

Just like the political victimizations that have taken place since 2015, before the 1982 Presidential elections Hector Kobbekaduwa was periodically summoned to the CID by the UNP Government.

The referendum marked a mockery of democracy and it also kickstarted cheating in the name of democracy a feature that looks all too similar today to what began first under UNP rule. The similarities & strategies adopted by successive UNP leaders – JRJ, Premadasa & Ranil Wickremasinghe have unique similarities that cannot be overlooked.

But, the question is where were all these beacons of virtues objecting when these violations were taking place?

Shenali D Waduge

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