The constitution of September 1978 established the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka as a free, sovereign, independent state based on universal suffrage at 18 years of age. The president of the republic is directly elected for a six-year term and serves as head of state and as executive head of government, appointing and heading the cabinet of ministers whom he or she chooses and who are (or must quickly become) members of parliament. A prime minister, similarly selected, serves mainly as parliamentary leader.
Legislation approved by parliament cannot be vetoed by the president, and the president may be removed by parliament upon a two-thirds majority vote, following a finding by the Supreme Court of incapacity, treason, corruption, or intentional constitutional violation. The constitution can be amended by two-thirds' majority vote in the parliament, subject to ratification (for certain provisions) by popular referendum. The constitution provides that popular referenda also may be held on issues of national importance, but the normal business of legislation is in the hands of a unicameral parliament consisting first of 168— now 225—members elected for six-year terms under a proportional representation system. The sitting parliament elected in July 1977 took the unusual step of extending its own life for another six years by a national referendum in 1982, thus avoiding elections in which the competition for places on the ballot might have weakened the UNP's constitution-amending two-thirds majority.
In June 1994, the Wijetunga government scheduled "snap" elections for parliament on 16 August 1994, six months earlier than would have been required; elections to the presidency followed parliamentary polling. Paced by the electoral appeal of SLFP deputy leader Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the People's Alliance of seven leftist parties won a clear plurality in the elections, ousting the UNP after 17 years in power. To the 91 parliamentary seats the Alliance won directly were added an additional 14 under the proportional system, and with the further support of 9 members of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the new Peoples' Alliance government was able to command a majority of 114 seats in the 225-member house and to elect Kumaratunga as leader of the house, facilitating her prompt appointment as prime minister—an office previously held by both her ailing 80-year old mother and her late father, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.
Because the presidential system incorporated in the 1978 constitution vests the substantial powers of head of state and head of government in the hands of the president, Kumaratunga's capacity for independent action remained limited. As prime minister, she was actually little more than leader of the house but in the November 1994 presidential elections, Kumaratunga, who is the daughter and the widow of prominent Sri Lankan politicians (both of whom were assassinated) was elected president by a sizeable majority. After assuming office, she appointed her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, prime minister. Upon being elected, she made her primary issue a negotiated peace with the Tamil separatists. Kumaratunga's repeated offers of a limited sovereignty within a greater Sri Lankan state were spurned by the Tamils. Attempts to subdue the Tamils by military force also failed, with the Sri Lankan army suffering serious reversals in November 1999. Despite this, in December 1999 Kumaratunga won a second six-year term in office as Sri Lanka's president. Kumaratunga's People's Alliance party was defeated in parliamentary elections held in December 2001, and Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party became prime minister. A cease-fire between the Tamils and the government was signed in February 2002, and peace talks began later that year. As of February 2003, there was friction between the People's Alliance and its partner the People's Liberation Front, and Wickremasinghe's government, largely over the terms of the agreements being made with the LTTE.