Elections and Youth Participation in Sri Lanka
by Parakum Jayasinghe
January 5, 2017

The translation of the article submitted by Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe to the collection of articles published by the Election Commission to mark the 85th anniversary of the universal franchise of Sri Lanka.

No official data can be found to identify the voting patterns of the youth in elections. It is same about the women, elderly or any other age category. A secret ballot in a box is literally a vote of which the caster’s identity cannot be traced normally. In this backdrop, the speculations on voting patterns are only outward observations. The opinion polls published immediately before the elections are also based on sample surveys.

Who is youth?

The age scope of the youth is a matter for argument. When does the youth of life start and end? Sri Lankan youth over 18 years enjoy universal franchise. The National Youth Services Council considers the persons between 17 and 35 years are youth. But according to UN definitions, the youth are the persons between 18 and 29 years.

UN Security Council Resolution No. 2250 which was passed on 9th December 2015 as the first such resolution on youth notes ‘that the term youth is defined in the context of this resolution as persons of the age of 18-29 years old.’

According to Sri Lanka’s election law, a youth candidate is a person between 18 and 35 years of age.

Universal franchise was introduced to Ceylon in 1931 and all males and females over the age of 21 years were eligible to vote in national elections. Later, MP Peter Keunaman representing Communist Party of Ceylon moved in the parliament to amend the law to lower the age for universal franchise to 18 from 21. But many of the orthodox politicians opposed the move.

The minimum age to be a voter was reduced to 18 as per the 1959 No. 11 amendment act. The first election in which the youth over 18 years of age were eligible to vote was the 1960 March general election.

Discussions are underway to decrease the minimum age for universal franchise to 16 years. This was debated in the youth parliament which had been established by the National Youth Services Council to empower the Sri Lankan youth.

Youth in the practical world

The reason for the rejection of many of the nominations filed in the 2011 local government election was the nominations being in short of the compulsory 25% of youth candidates in the nominations. The appeals against the rejections were examined in the Court of Appeal and it was revealed that practically the youth candidates had to be 20 years old and not 18 years old as said by law.

The Deputy Solicitor General Shavindra Fernando appearing for the Election Commissioner argued in the Court of Appeal that the candidates had to be born before 31st May 1991. Those who were born after that were not eligible to contest that election.

The Deputy Solicitor General argued that all candidates had to be completed 18 years of age by 1st July 2009. The nominations which contained the names of candidates who had not been 18 years old by the specified date were rejected. The election was held in 2011 and practically only the voters and candidates who were around 20 years old had the chance to participate in it.

Ranil Dharmasena argues in an article written to Divaina newspaper that an electoral register is a list compiled from those who have become eligible to be voters by 1st June of each year who have been informed it in writing to the enumerator (

Definitely, the youth were subjected to injustice in the local government election held in 2011. But it is not limited to that particular election. Due to the voters’ registry used in the elections are prepared more than a year in advance, many young persons who have passed the minumum age to be eligible to be electors miss the chance of using their franchise in each election.

The then Minister of Human Resources D.E.W. Gunasekara discussed this issue delivering theguest lecture at the opening of the 7th session of the youth parliament.

“Although every citizen over 18 years old has the right to vote according to the law, those who just passed 18 have never voted in elections. The eligible persons have to be 20 or 21 years old to cast their vote in the practical sense.

“But the minimum age limit for paying income tax has now been made 18 years. The citizens have to pay income tax just as they pass the age of 18 years but they have to wait for another couple of years to vote.

“In 1931, the literacy was 30% in this country. But it is over 94% now. Universal franchise contributed to this improvement too. Only 100 students entered universities in 1940 but today more than 22,000 enter universities each year now. Now we can give the responsibilities to youth.  

“The youngest MP elected to the parliament after the minimum age was reduced to 18 was Lakshman Rajapaksa. He was 21 years old then and no one younger than him had ever elected to parliament.

“Lakshman Rajapaksa could elect to the parliament at the age of 21 because the cut off age was 18. But if it was 21, he would have elected to the parliament only when he was 24.”

Following view was mentioned in the policy statement delivered by President Maithripala Sirisena addressing the inaugural session of the eighth parliament. “The youth rebellions that took place in this country are evidence for the lack of actions taken for the youth as a nation even though we have spoken many things about the youth. We lost thousands of youthful lives as results of such conflicts. Only a few of the recommendations of the 1990 commission to probe on youth unrest have been implemented. My government will reconsider those recommendations and act to implement those recommendations in a way suitable for the present times. I emphasize that my government will not be allowed for political interferences when jobs are given and in other events for which state involvement is necessary.”

In the above mentioned UN Security Council Resolution 2250 also urged the member countries to increase the youth participation at all levels of decision making. It also urged the member countries to guarantee the security of all civilians including youth during armed conflict and post conflict transition situations. The aim of the proposal is to ensure the active, efficient and meaningful participation of the youth in peace and security. This resolution is related to the youth participation in prevention of violence, peacebuilding, empowerment, development, equality as well as post conflict disarmament, disengagement and reintegration.

This resolution is very important to Sri Lanka. Already the youth population is 23% of the total population and soon one of each four Sri Lankans will be the elderly over 60 years old. The responsibilities on the shoulders of the youth population will be immense in this context.

Sri Lanka has an increasing youth population and decreasing Total Fertility Rate. In demography, the situation created in such context is called Demographic Dividend. Ronald Lee and Andrew Mason explained Demographic Dividend as “the transition from a largely rural agrarian society with high fertility and mortality rates to a predominantly urban industrial society with low fertility and mortality rates. At an early stage of this transition, fertility rates fall, leading to fewer young mouths to feed. During this period, the labor force temporarily grows more rapidly than the population dependent on it, freeing up resources for investment in economic development and family welfare. Other things being equal, per capita income grows more rapidly too. That’s the first dividend.

“This dividend period is quite long, lasting five decades or more, but eventually lower fertility reduces the growth rate of the labor force, while continuing improvements in old-age mortality speed growth of the elderly population. Now, other things being equal, per capita income grows more slowly and the first dividend turns negative.

“But a second dividend is also possible. A population concentrated at older working ages and facing an extended period of retirement has a powerful incentive to accumulate assets—unless it is confident that its needs will be provided for by families or governments. Whether these additional assets are invested domestically or abroad, national income rises.

“In short, the first dividend yields a transitory bonus, and the second transforms that bonus into greater assets and sustainable development. These outcomes are not automatic but depend on the implementation of effective policies. Thus, the dividend period is a window of opportunity rather than a guarantee of improved standards of living.” (

A country with both increasing numbers of young people and declining fertility has the potential to reap a demographic dividend.” – United Nations Population Fund  (UNFPA) (

Asian Development Bank points out that Sri Lanka has the potential of achieving a high growth rate of over 7%, according to these demographic trends.

By 2012, the working age population of Sri Lanka was 67%. But unfortunately, only 56% of them were actually employed. The reason can be the low participation of people in the labour force and the high unemployment among women and youth. (

But according to the Labour Force Survey of the Census and Statistics Department, the unemployment among the age category of 15-24 years is as high as 20.3% whereas the unemployment in the age category between 25 tand 29 years is 8.3%.

The need of a conducive policy environment to maximize the demographic dividend and sustain economic growth especially in the manufacturing and service sectors in the country was discussed in the Generation to Generation policy dialogue held in Colombo in December 2015 under the patronage of UNFPA in the theme “Is our young population a driving force to determine Sri Lanka’s middle income status?” The participants of the dialogue highlighted the need for developing the soft skills like negotiation and conflict resolution. They pointed out that the lack of soft skills had affected the sustainability of the new entrants to the labour force.

Participants also pointed out that there was a need for values education which would enable   young   people to work with integrity, respect and tolerance in a labour market which is competitive for resources.

It was also emphasized that it is very important to provide more opportunies for the youth to participate in decision making and implementation of policies.

Youth Rebellions

Youth revolts are one of the main themes which surfaces when the youth political participation is discussed. Youth were the major stakeholders of the revolts in 1971 and 1987-89 and also in the 30-year Tamil Ealam revolt. They took the bulk of the damage of the suppression. Also, youth involved broadly in the counter subversive measures as members of security forces, police and homeguards.

The contribution of the rebels was more to disrupt the elections and not to make them successful. In the 1970 general election which was held few months before the 1971 revolt, the rebels did not disrupt elections. Instead, they engaged in the elections indirectly. But the People’s Liberation Front (JVP) which was banned in 1983 boycotted the 1987 Provincial Council election, 1988 Presidential and 1989 general election. They tried to disrupt elections by way of assassinating candidates, polling agents, people’s representatives and even the voters. They were partially successful and the turn out of these elections were historically low.

Parallally, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) also disrupted almost all elections until 1983 to 2009. LTTE helped to hold the 2004 general election during the ceasefire but they are accused of influencing the people who came to the government controlled areas from the rebel held areas to cast their vote. LTTE backed the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in this election.

Although LTTE has registered its own political party, they have never considered democratic elections seriously. However, the political party turned militant groups like Ealam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), Elam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Ealam (PLOTE) later joined the democratic mainstream entirely.

JVP which was hanging between armed struggles and elections time to time has now sustained as a radical democratic political party which contests all elections. Their main strategy appears to be getting elected to the people’s representation bodies. However, JVP splinter group Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) is yet to prove it is established in the representative democratic politics. They contested in some of the recent elections including the 2015 Presidential.

Youth is usually radical. The youth participation is remarkable in all elections which caused major political changes in Sri Lanka. It is observed that the youth were actively engaged in elections held in 1956, 1994 and 2015 which caused major political changes in the country. The final result was eventually decided by youth voters.

2015 January 8 Presidential is important not because it was the most recent election in which the influence of the internet, new media or social media was highy impactful, as observed by critics. In relation to social media, youth engagement is usually higher than their involvement in conventional media.

Social Media

It is very important to study what happened in Arab Spring before trying to evaluate the contribution of social media to the regime change in 2015.

In December 2010, an unemployed Tunisian graduate set himself alight in protest at his treatment by police who arrested the cart on which he was selling vegetable. On 14 January, 10 days after the young man died, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s rule was over due to protests led by youth. Swiss banks suspended paying back the money the ousted President had swindled and deposited there. The incident which ignited protests in Bahrain in 2011 was similar and a young man committed self-immolation in that incident too. The Arab Spring movement quickly took hold in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain. Youth were the most important stakeholders in these struggles and the social media were more influential than the conventional media in Arab Spring.

It was widely discussed in the 2015 Presidential also that the influence of the social media was very high. Naturally, new media are overwhelmed by youth participation. It is a fast moving space which can be used to build opinion and also to get the feedback immediately. The space in this article is not sufficient to discuss it further. Therefore, we emphasize only that youth were the main force behind the social media impact on the elections of the modern times.

Local Government Elections

Laws were amended many years ago to encourage youth representation in the local government bodies. The nomination lists must include 25% of the candidates who are between the 18 to 35 years. But this provision does not guarantee that 25% of the local government members will be youth. Still, the youth representation in local government bodies is very low. Meritocracy is not given prominence in these election campaigns and the established politicians try to utilize the opportunity given to youth to train their offspring for the future politics.

The leaders and the policy makers must understand the importance of giving fair representation to youth. Increasing the youth representation in politics was one of the recommendations of the Commission to Probe the Youth Unrest which was appointed in 1990. It was first applied to the local government elections.

“71.5% young people in Sri Lanka were largely inactive politically; only 1.9% was involved in any political work and 1.3% in trade union activities,” Mentions ‘20.4 Million’ (2015) a publication on Sri Lanka’s population by UNFPA. Youth participation in politics is very important purely because of the magnitude of their population portion. The more they engage in politics, the more they engage policy implementation process of a country.


Parakum Jayasinghe
Blogging for Social Change
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