Can public protests lead to a Constitutional moment? | Sunday Observer

Can public protests lead to a Constitutional moment?

22 May, 2022

The overwhelming euphoria erupted in Sri Lankan society in the aftermath of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s massive political victory at the Presidential elections in 2019 was akin to the soliloquy of Duke of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s Richard III, where the duke hails the King by saying “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun York”.

Contrary to the sanguine hopes pervaded the people, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s rule proved to be rather obtuse in addressing the basic needs of the people. The current ongoing protest movements pressuring the President to resign is not a social resistance which arose out of the blue, but it is rooted in the crisis that the whole country has been facing since the outbreak of Covid 19.

In the light of such a political and economic Armageddon, the protests movements initiated by the people in Sri Lanka seem to be unique as they have risen as a voluntary force devoid of any political involvement. Thus, it may be a worthy inquiry to assess whether the current wave of protest movements in Sri Lanka lead to alter its archetypical constitutional structure, which aggrandises absolute executive presidency.

The authoritarian nature of the Constitution was further bolstered by the 20th Amendment to the Constitution which was enacted in October 2020 leading to a steeping increase of power around the Executive President. It must be noted that the 20th Amendment witnessed significant opposition from the range of parties including the constituent members of the Government as it went on to erode several progressive democratic reforms introduced by the 19th Amendment.

Protest movements

In ascertaining the present protest movements in Sri Lanka as a deceptive step to rewrite its troubled Constitution, one needs to comprehend the nature of constitutional moment and its effect upon changing the basic structure of the Constitution. According to the American Constitutional theorist Bruce Akerman constitutional moment stands for any of those transformative events occurring outside those formal limits established by the Constitutional text. Nevertheless, Ackerman’s theory of “Constitutional Moment, despite its academic astuteness misses the importance of the mass protest movements as a novel form in constitutional transformation.

“Go Home Gota” is the cardinal slogan of the present protest movement invoking the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In addition to that people have aptly shown the abhorrence towards the whole Rajapaksa clan and the entire political apparatus in the island nation demanding that the entire 225 members of the legislature should go home. Even though it may appear to be a rhetoric indicating the sign of an anarchy, the paroxysm of the people’s anger is justifiable. Nonetheless, it arises a legitimate question regarding its effectiveness as a broader social upheaval that would design a new epoch for a progressive constitutional transformation in the country.

The recent events occurred globally has already provided a precedent to show how such mass protest movements can lead for colossal changes as “Constitutional moments”.

Candlelight protests in South Korea in 2016 against its President Park Geun-Hye for abuse of power, the Venezuelan protest movement in 2019 challenged the autocratic regime of President Juan Guaido and the “smile revolution led by the Algerian youth to confront the corrupt rule of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika were typical examples for the recent mass protest movements that paved the path for structural changes in those countries. Also, the audacity shown by the people in Chile last year gave birth to an autochthonous constitution which can be regarded as an ideal constitutional moment.

One pertinent example illuminating in all the above-mentioned countries is that all these countries resemble the executive presidential structure of Sri Lanka’s Constitution regardless of the diverse socio-cultural differences.

Notwithstanding the absolute power vested in the President by the Constitution, the surge of the mass protests disrupted the overarching political structure in those countries, which resulted in the ebb of the autocratic rule. Moreover, it is worth noting that those people’s protest movement in South Korea, Venezuela and Algeria sprang in a context where the political parties lacked a fervent ideological force to drive their citizens. Thus, the rigour of the protests became autonomous embodying people’s ardour to transform their political system, which denoted a form popular constitutionalism.


The current narrative chanted by the masses in Sri Lanka is Go Home Gota is univocal demand to the President to step down. Yet, there is no palpable guideline that people tend to follow after ousting the President, which creates a sense of ambiguity for the scope of the movement unlike the other recent protest movements in South Korea, Venezuela and Algeria that contained salient expectations for broader constitutional changes.

Taking into the account of Article 3 of the Sri Lankan Constitution, which enshrines the sovereign power of the people, a critical constitutional scholar can argue the current wave of protest movement as a manifestation of people’s sovereignty. However, the success of this current protest movement depends on the robustness of the democratic institutes and their reaction to people’s demands.

The current mass protest movement in Sri Lanka can simply become a beacon as a constitutional moment, if it can be grounded on a structured constitutional changing process like abolishing the Executive Presidency. In general, the whole success of this wave is based on the people’s zealousness to participate in broader constitutional change as it occurred in Chile last year.

History has always shown how mass protest movements can mere beguiling efforts when they collide with political movements that have often lead to lose people’s ubiquitous constitutional goals or creating an unprecedented level of political instability in the country.