Dynastic politics in Sri Lanka


back to issue

RECENTLY The Economist ran an article titled ‘The Son Also Rises’, speculating that Mahinda Rajapaksa may be grooming his son, Namal Rajapaksa, an MP for Hambantota, to succeed him.1 Rajapaksa’s dynastic aspirations will not be breaking any new ground in Sri Lanka. Since independence, the political leadership of the country has been dominated by three political families – members of the Senanayake clan,2 the Bandaranaike clan3 and now the Rajapaksa clan. This dynastic dimension of the country’s political leadership is both cause and consequence of the hierarchies and structural biases of Sri Lankan political life – although, arguably, more consequence than cause.

A commentator on Sri Lankan politics recently decried the ills of dynasty, arguing that, ‘We Sri Lankans treat government as a paternalistic feudal monarchy. …Democracy is a mere stage to act out the brutalities of feudal politics. The rituals of electoral democracy, socialist bureaucracy and constitutional republicanism are essentially props in a political theatre barely changed from the Bronze Age.’4 This spectre of anti-modernist feudal fiefdoms is constantly invoked to describe and explain dynastic politics. However, Sri Lankan modernity is infused with institutions and traditions that have both democratic and anti-democratic dimensions. Binaries such as modernity vs. tradition, feudal vs. democratic may not be able to tell us much about the ways in which these are overlapping and mutually constitutive trajectories.


When ties of lineage and kinship shape political inheritance, these are often considered to be in tension with democratic institutions.5 Yet, here we see these ties infuse democratic institutions to constitute a modern political elite. The social capital that circulates through the national elite translates into leadership positions in political parties; family ties lubricate that circulation in ways that are not dissimilar to the ties that bind the upper echelons of the private sector, alumni of elite schools and other domains that yield social capital.

Noting the family resemblance between dynastic politics in Sri Lanka and the dynamics of political elites in other contexts, this paper argues that dynastic politics is symptomatic of the socio-economic and inter-ethnic injustices that have shaped and constrained dominant political institutions in the country. Their access to social capital that can translate into political power, i.e. the elite character of Sri Lanka’s prime ministers and presidents, is a more telling dimension of Sri Lanka’s political leadership than kinship per se.

Thus, I argue further that we may best understand dynastic politics not through the tired binaries of modernity vs. tradition or feudal vs. democratic institutions, but through a contextual analysis of the enabling conditions of this translatable social capital. Moreover, dynastic politics have had a deeply problematic impact but for reasons that extend beyond the hold of kinship.

The paper has a three-part focus: first, it explores the history of dynastic political leadership in Sri Lanka; it goes on to elaborate some consequences of dynastic politics in Sri Lanka; and finally, it situates Sri Lanka in a broader discussion of democratization.


Don Stephen Senanayake founded the United National Party (UNP) in 1946 and was elected prime minister in 1947 on the eve of Sri Lanka’s independence on 4 February 1948. His leadership was the beginning of nine years of dynastic rule as his son, Dudley Shelton Senanayake6 and nephew, John Kotalawela,7 succeeded him. In 1956, Kotalawela was defeated in the general elections by the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who became the fourth prime minister and launched Sri Lanka’s most famous dynasty with his wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike8 and his daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga,9 leading the country for various intervals over the next decades. In all, the Bandaranaikes were heads of state for almost half of Sri Lanka’s post-independence life. What appears to be the end of that dynastic run was marked by the rise of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who currently heads the SLFP and has been president since 2005.

The SLFP (later the lead partner in the People’s Alliance – PA) and the UNP have between them dominated political life. In the years that the SLFP and the Bandaranaike’s were out of power, the UNP and the extended Senanayake clan held office; this included Senanayake’s distant relative, Junius Richard Jayewardene, who was head of state from 1977 to 1989, and Jayewardene’s nephew, Ranil Wickramasinghe, who was head of state for five years.

Over the last six decades dynastic families have dominated political leadership and kinship ties to the head of state have systematically generated manifold political advantages. Of course, association with a lineage is itself an incalculable benefit because it automatically ensures name recognition and publicity. In many cases, the heads of state themselves are invested in promoting their children or nephews as their successors and have extended various forms of political patronage to advance that goal by strategically positioning the putative successor in the political party and on the national stage. In addition, dynastic candidates inherit the more institutionalized benefits of a centralized political party structure in both the UNP and the SLFP. In both parties, the party machinery has a top-down structure and the party leadership exercises disproportionate control over campaign strategy and distribution of personal and financial resources within the party.


In Sri Lanka, political parties are not only platforms for convening the ideological like-minded; they are also embedded in a patronage based system of political mobilization where the political fidelity of constituents is tied to state sponsored infrastructure projects in those regions, access to welfare entitlements and like rewards. Kinship ties can give candidates the inside track into becoming a strategic player in this patron-client system. The political capital built through this process is a hefty political inheritance that often fundamentally shapes the landscape for electoral competition. An outsider who doesn’t have access to this capital will have little chance of penetrating that political terrain. Finally, in recent years, being well-positioned within the party has also meant the ability to mobilize violence as a ‘complement’ to electoral campaigning; this may be yet another dimension of the authoritarian architecture of the party machinery that is both enabled by and reproduces top-down control in ways that feed into dynastic politics.


While political dynasties have controlled political leadership in the country, there have been a few minor outside figures that were interim leaders (such as Wijewyananda Dahanayake who was prime minister for the six months following the assassination of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike) or largely ceremonial appointments such as the current premier, Disanayaka Mudiyanselage Jayaratne. The only real exception to the reach of lineage, and it is a striking exception, was Ranasinghe Premadasa, president from 1989 until his assassination in 1993. Not only not a member of the three families mentioned, he was also non-elite in both class and caste terms. Thus, his breakthrough into the upper echelons of political leadership reflected both extraordinary political skills and unusual historical circumstances (the 1980s was the period that saw the rise of the violent JVP insurgency in the South).

Interestingly, however, it appears that Premadasa himself may have spawned a dynasty. His son, Sajith Premadasa, is now an MP and a popular contender for the leadership of the United National Party; over the last four general elections, he has consistently won the most preferential votes of any UNP candidate.

Dynastic transitions have been effected through a combination of direct political patronage and what we may term legacy nominations when the head of state has died prematurely. In all cases, however, regular polls have subsequently conferred some electoral legitimacy on these successions. Where the putative legacy successor has failed to garner wider democratic legitimacy, the succession has not happened – S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s son, Anura Bandaranaike being the most prominent example. Thus, while the multifold political patronage that arises from family associations has been key in all these cases, kinship based patronage is by itself not sufficient for political succession.


This quick run down of dynastic heads of state understates the extent to which kinship ties shape political leadership at several levels. This is the case within the party structure of the UNP and SLFP, as well as in other key political institutions. The reach of family ties into different levels of the political establishment has never been more apparent than in the Rajapaksa regime where his brothers Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa have been appointed as ministers of defence and economic development respectively and his brother Chamal Rajapaksa is a member of parliament and speaker of the house. Chamal Rajapaksa’s son is also a member of parliament and heads a provincial government authority, just as Rajapaksa’s own son Namal is a member of parliament and head of various committees.

In fact, members of the Rajapaksa clan hold office in various ministries and other government institutions. Many of these may be the result of nepotistic appointments more generally and the long-term trajectory of some of these appointments may point towards the presidency and the next stage in the Rajapaksa dynasty. The focus of this paper is dynastic politics not nepotism, but these are of course not disconnected; a tradition of dynastic politics can create a political culture that legitimates and encourages nepotism.


Kinship is also important on the other end of the electoral calculus – voting. The majority of voters vote for the same party that their parents did; familial, caste, class and regional ties are critical factors in explaining voting patterns. Thus family ties have been pivotal in ‘stabilizing’ and reproducing the two major parties at both the leadership and the voter end. Whenever we have witnessed a significant break in kinship based electoral loyalties, invocation of inter-generational grievance has been an explicit component of political mobilization and a prominent reference point in challenges to the received political landscape, such as the JVP charge about the failure of the older generation to speak about the economic and political future of youth or the charge of Tamil militant groups about the older Tamil parties.

The enabling conditions of dynastic politics have been complex. The Sri Lankan elites who replaced British administrators at independence came to prominence through a peculiar combination of obsequiance to colonial administration and nationalist leadership.10 Families such as the Senanayakes and Bandaranaikes were themselves a hybrid of feudal and bourgeois elite formations that rendered them well-positioned to seamlessly slip into leadership positions; arguably, even the categories of feudal and bourgeois do not translate very well in describing the dynamics that led to their rise and prominence.


The enduring reach of the class, ethnic and caste axis of the social structure have privileged elite families in the political sphere; concomitantly, elite candidates and their route to power have helped sustain and reproduce the social structure.11 This vicious cycle has dominated political life in Sri Lanka. The terms of political engagement and their outcomes have entrenched barriers of ethnicity,12 caste13 and class14 to configure a very narrowly constituted ruling elite, and instituted rigid boundaries to the scope of socio-economic change. The explosive limitations of the political terrain constituted by this political architecture is indicated by Sri Lanka’s history of brutal youth insurgencies in the North and South and three decades of equally brutal state violence.

In looking at the implications of dynastic politics on the political system, three issues are worth highlighting – implications for political participation, the nature of political institutions and the terms of political discourse. As noted already, with the remarkable exception of Premadasa, family affiliation has been critical to securing a path to the prime ministership or (after the 1978 constitutional change) the executive presidency. If dynastic candidates emerge because there are too many barriers for outsiders to easily break through, then surely these barriers become even more deeply entrenched every time lineage once again becomes the ticket to office.


The toxic combination of far reaching party centralization and an internal party structure embedded in patron-client networks has been one of the important barriers to those who have not ‘inherited’ privileged access to the two principal parties. These networks provide a national reach and material basis for developing a mass base in ways that entrenched the power of the SLFP and the UNP. The exceptions to this pattern prove the rule; for instance, A.T. Ariyaratne and Vijay Kumaratunga became viable national candidates even though they were not born into leading political families because they were able to rely on extra-party mobilization – A.T. Ariyaratna developed a mass base through the NGO Sarvodaya and Vijay Kumaratunga developed a mass base by capitalizing on his popularity as a film star. Finally, as dynastic politics becomes increasingly legitimated, it in turn also legitimates the abuse of power and nepotistic and corrupt practices more generally. Nothing underscores the toxicity that these dynamics can unleash into the political apparatus more than the Rajapaksa regime where a few dozen family members have been appointed to positions in government and enjoy impunity from the abuse of power because of their family lineage.


Moreover, the terms of political discourse that are narrowed by the political party structure and lineage candidates can both reflect and exacerbate this problem. Political parties themselves reflect background social structures; thus their electoral calculations reflect an exaggerated version of these social fissures. As has been frequently noted, both principal political parties have found it advantageous to develop electoral platforms that cater to majoritarian sentiments. His popularity as a film star, independent of the political party structures, is what enabled Vijay Kumaratunga to advance a progressive platform on the ethnic question. As already noted, the JVP and Tamil militant groups such as the LTTE thrust their demands on the political agenda through violence for a number of reasons, but it was at least partly because entrenched dimensions of mainstream political institutions and political culture closed off entry for non-elite interests. There is no linear link between elite candidates and elite interests, but the record of dynastic politics is symptomatic of structural barriers to significant social transformation.


Dynastic politics, however, has a complex legacy and there is what one could potentially see as a positive side of the ledger as well. The role of women in political leadership is clearly an important part of this story. Many societies that have fewer barriers to non-elite political participation have nevertheless seen few women enter the upper echelons of power. In Sri Lanka, it was lineage politics that allowed Sirimavo Bandaranaike to break through that barrier. Dynastic associations served as a kind of affirmative action that thrust Sirimavo Bandaranaike forward in a context where no woman had broken through the old boys club of party politics anywhere in the world. She then went on to shape her own platform and win elections in ways that made the office her own.15 This had the potential of encouraging more women to run for office at other levels of the political system, though to date it has had very limited reach; women make up less than five per cent of the current parliament.16

More significant, however, is not how dynastic politics has allowed women into leadership in Sri Lanka, but that it has the potential to allow candidates to break out of the vicious cycle mentioned earlier to advance a progressive agenda. Chandrika Kumaratunga is perhaps the lone example of this in Sri Lanka’s leadership history. In the 1994 elections, the family links to her parents and her late husband, Vijay Kumaratunga, undoubtedly gave her a political base to challenge the UNP; however, she then took that base with her on a peace and pluralism platform that broke out of the majoritarian electoral calculus of other candidates. The conventional wisdom has always been that a majoritarian agenda is critical for electoral success; yet, the 1994 elections counted on the fact that the strength of political loyalty to her as an individual (partly, although not only, based on familial loyalties) could overcome that conventional calculus.


Dynastic politics provides a window into how elites have held a near monopoly on political leadership in Sri Lanka and that monopoly has often been tied in complex ways with the entrenching of a political system that produced them. For instance, D.S. Senanayake mobilized his party machinery to support J.R. Jayewardene and this was pivotal to the latter winning the 1943 Kelaniya bye-election and stepping onto the national stage.17 However, by all accounts, their familial ties were not close. The real significance of this backing was that within the UNP this kind of political patronage helped build a party that was active in safeguarding the interests of the post-independence elite.

Yet, as the discussion of the Kumaratunga candidature suggests, one should not equate the dominance of elite politics with a system that is over-determined by elite interests. There have been important stakes in each election and the differences between the platforms of different parties on various issues have been significant; this was particularly true of the first few decades of independence that entrenched Sri Lanka’s social welfare system and wrought far-reaching change in areas such as access to education. Yet, these changes remain circumscribed and the mainstream political system has alienated minorities, further impoverished the poor and remained unresponsive to a range of other agendas, from environmental protection to redressing caste based injustices. Moreover, it has helped shape a trajectory towards the brutal nepotism of the Rajapaksa era.


Dynastic politics is prevalent in many other parts of the world – from South Asia to the United States. However, their political meaning and significance depends on the context. During the 2008 election campaign for the US presidency, The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff noted that were Hillary Clinton to win the presidency, two families would have held the American presidency for twenty-eight years. In the US and Sri Lanka, candidates who came to the fore by capitalizing on lineage-based political capital have been affirmed in the polls and integrated into the mainstream of democratic processes. In other contexts, there has been widespread opposition to the prospect of dynastic transition. The character and meaning of dynastic politics can only be understood in context.

In Egypt for instance, the prospect of Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal Mubarak, being fast tracked into the presidency mobilized significant protest because this indicated the narrowing of democratic space and the further consolidation of an authoritarian regime. In other contexts, family based political transitions have been seen to continue an expansion of democratic space. Arguably, in the Argentinian case, the Kitchener husband-wife transition helped entrench the dynamic towards social transformation and redistribution, enhancing rather than limiting democratic space in significant ways. This may have itself been because of background socio-economic injustices that limited the political field, but they do underscore the point that the democratic reach of dynastic politics do not lend themselves to simple conclusion. Moreover, the rigid boxes of democracy and feudalism cannot fully capture the complexity and polyvalent character of democratic practices.


Many traditions of conventional social science and many political projects aimed at democracy promotion have contributed to understanding democracy as a singular model with specific institutional forms. Generally, the received wisdom has contrasted dynastic politics from democratic politics; it has often seen the latter as reflecting an immature stage of political development. On many fronts the Sri Lankan record unpacks the linkages between democracy and any particular democratic institution. As has been noted by many scholars, it is precisely the move to liberal reform in the Donoughmore Constitution, the universal franchise and direct first past the post elections that created the perverse electoral incentive for majoritarian politics.

In turn, it is precisely the illiberal goals of the 1978 constitution and J.R. Jayewardene’s interest in manipulating the electoral game to defeat his opposition, that unexpectedly opened the door to greater power for minorities through the introduction of proportionate representation. The 1995 constitutional proposals gave Buddhism elevated constitutional protection; yet, by any measure, the provisions for decentralization and minority protection contained in this proposals make them the most pluralist constitutional proposals that have ever been put on the table by any Sri Lankan government. Excessively rigid models of states and political organization obscure these kinds of context-specific complexities and nuances.

Our critique of dynastic politics then is not captured by the focus on family; rather we may better understand the problematic nature of dynastic politics and the structures that have reproduced it through attention to the hierarchies and structural biases that have shaped elite politics in Sri Lanka and the injustices it has spawned. Thus, dynastic politics may be better understood through family resemblance with other forms of elite politics. In many other countries, the ‘ruling elite’ is not characterized by familial ties, but by other factors that may function in parallel ways.


In the UK, for instance, Oxbridge has dominated the university careers of prime ministers over the last century. In the US, it may not be the presidency alone that provides a window into the political elite – rather it may be roles such as the head of the Federal Bank. There has been much recent work on the incestuous ties between political leadership of economic policy and the upper echelons of banks and financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs.18 This may provide a more informed lens into the narrow range of candidates that could aspire to be Chairman of the Fed.,19 and concomitantly, the narrow boundaries of the economic agenda irrespective of which political party occupies the White House. Thus an exploration of how political elites function within electoral democracies may give us a better understanding of the ways dynastic politics operate in Sri Lanka. It is both a species of electoral democracy and a force that erects boundaries on the scope of democratic change.


For instance, take the patron-client system addressing infrastructure projects and welfare entitlements that we described earlier as essential to the unwritten contract between political parties and their constituents. On one reading these are feudal loyalties that reflect the unwritten contracts of the monarchical tradition of Sinhalese kings who sponsored projects such as the building of dams as part of the responsibilities of paternalistic rule. On the other hand, the patron-client system is a distinctively modern creation of the post-independence developmental state.

The various social movements that shaped the Sri Lankan state’s far-reaching commitment to universal education and health care were embedded in more contemporary electoral logics of the party structure and the bureaucratic rationalities of modern statecraft. The technologies of governance that operate as part of the backbone of dynastic politics can be understood here as fundamentally modern, including in the production and mobilizing of collective memories of monarchical traditions. Thus, the categories of feudalism and modernity obscure more than they reveal.

In conclusion, I want to look at how we may move forward in analyzing dynastic politics in Sri Lanka. In particular, I want to suggest that our understanding, both of the complex dynamics of dynastic politics and their family resemblance to other forms of elite networks, may benefit from a rethinking of received categories of social science by a diverse range of thinkers over the last few decades. While the limitations of length hinder me from elaborating in depth, let me briefly point to some of these new directions. Certain dominant avenues of political engagement have come to define democratic engagement as such. As Partha Chatterjee has explored, these avenues do not recognize the modalities of political engagement adopted by subaltern communities and we need to develop a more complex understanding of the heterogenous nature of political society.

For instance, ‘civil society’ and ‘political parties’ are both institutional forms of dominant avenues of political engagement and sedimented conceptual vocabularies through which the political field is understood, even if both these forms do not capture the political engagement of the poor and marginalized communities, and privileging these forms is itself reflective of a form of social and symbolic capital. This naturalization performs what Bourdieu may have called symbolic violence against non-elite political participation, and non-hegemonic forms of political engagement. Not unlike other elite networks, dynastic politics is inserted into these logics in Sri Lanka in ways that entrench the misrecognition of political society and profits the accumulation of social capital in the political sphere.



1. http://www.economist.com/node/18389 199?story_id=18389199

2. In addition to the first two post independence Prime Ministers, D.S. Senanayake and his son Dudley Senanayake, the clan includes his nephew John Kotalawela (the third prime minister). J.R. Jayewardene (who was the 10th prime minister and the first executive president) and his nephew, Ranil Wickramasinghe, the 13th and 19th prime minister, were also related to D.S. Senanayake, albeit this was a more distant connection (for a listing of the Senanayake family members see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ political_families_in_Sri_ Lanka#cite_note-13). The UNP was referred to as the Uncle-Nephew Party for many years because of the family relationships that linked different generations of political leaders in this clan.

3. The Bandaranaikes were also related to the Senanayakes.

4. See Cerno, ‘Sri Lanka is a Feudal Monarchy’, in http://cerno.wordpress.com/2010/01/04/feudal-monarchy-sri-lankan-view-of-government/

5. The most famous representation of this tension between family affairs and affairs of the state may be that between Antigone on the one hand, and Creon on the other. Antigone is driven by the pull of kinship and community; Creon is focused on the pragmatics of governance.

6. Dudley Senanayake would then go on to serve a second and third term as the 6th and 8th prime minister as well.

7. John Kotalawela’s mother was married to D.S. Senanayake’s brother and came under his influence and patronage early in his life.

8. She was prime minister from 1960 to 1965 and then again from 1970 to 1977 before she lost the 1977 elections to the UNP.

9. She was prime minister in 1994 and then president from 1994 to 2005 when she hit her term limit.

10. Kumari Jayawardena traces the pre-independence story of these postcolonial elite families who navigated this line to great advantage – both political and financial; see, Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka by Kumari Jayawardena. LeftWord Books, New Delhi, 2001.

11. For a discussion of elite formation in Sri Lanka see Robert Oberst, ‘Democracy and the Persistence of Westernized Elite Dominance in Sri Lanka’, Asian Survey 25(7), July 1985.

12. What is critical here is not just being Sinhalese, but being Sinhalese Buddhist. Thus, from J.R. Jayewardene to Lakshman Kadirgamar, many followed the unwritten rule that anyone politically ambitious had to be Buddhist, even if by conversion. In Jayewardene’s case, he also carefully cultivated the Kelaniya temple in ways that paid significant dividends when running against Christian candidates. See pp. 141-2 of K.M. De Silva and Howard Wriggins, J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka: 1906-1956. University of Hawaii Press, 1988. Moreover, it is part of the ritual of Sri Lankan political life for national politicians to get the blessings of the head clergy of Malwatta and Asgiriya. In some sense, the late Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, a Tamil Christian by birth, proves this point even more strongly; many of the eulogies at this death celebrated him as a ‘true Sinhalese’ or a ‘true Buddhist’. See Nandaka Maduranga Kalugampitiya in ‘Kadirgamar Identified’, Lines, November 2005-January 2006 in http://issues.lines-magazine.org/Art_ Nov05_ Feb06/Nandaka_Kadirgamar.htm

13. Premadasa’s non-Govigama origins remain a marker today of the entrenched caste barriers to political office. See the recent debate on caste and politics on the Center for Policy Alternatives blog, Groundviews, http://groundviews.org/2011/03/18/caste-in-sri-lanka-and-india-2/. See also Ranasinghe Premadasa by Surhone et al. Betascript Publishers, 2010.

14. One culturally powerful indicator of elite status is the school. A majority of Sri Lankan prime ministers went to the Eaton and Harrow of Sri Lanka, St. Thomas’ College and Royal College. D.S. Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike went to St. Thomas’ College; John Kotalawela, J.R. Jayewardene and Ranil Wickramasinghe attended Royal College. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga both studied at the same leading girls school in Colombo, Saint Bridget.

15. To mark the 50th anniversary of Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s ascension to power on 21 July 1960, a recent volume edited by Tissa Jayatilaka provides a critical appraisal of her legacy by some of Sri Lanka’s leading social scientists: see, Sirimavo: Honouring the World’s First Woman Prime Minister (2011).

16. There are ten women in a 225 seat parliament. See http://sundaytimes.lk/100411/News/nws_17.html

17. See pp. 140-1 of De Silva and Wriggins, op cit. The ties that bound D.S. and Jayewardene are also indicative of the contours of the political elite – from Buddhism to education at the two most elite Colombo schools to right of centre political ideology.

18. For Instance, see Charles H. Ferguson’s 2010 documentary, Inside Job. See also Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement From the New Deal to Reagan. Norton, 2009.

19. The full title is Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.