(This is a simplified version of the first chapter of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, published by Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, in 2005)

Generally by government we mean those who take decisions on behalf of a country. However the country itself is different from the government. Not everybody supports the government of his country. We must distinguish then between the State, to which we all owe loyalty, and the actions of government. The Head of State is the symbol of that State. Since he officially represents its citizens, his role as Head of State demands the allegiance of all citizens.


There are basically two forms of State, Republics and Monarchies. In a monarchy, the Head of State is a King or Queen. Earlier States in effect belonged to monarchs. In theory, that is the case even now, though in fact Kings usually have no real authority. This generally belongs to a separate head of government chosen by the people, though in theory acting for the monarch.

England and Japan are examples of monarchies where executive power belongs to a Prime Minister elected by the people. But there are also monarchies, such as Brunei, where the monarch has executive power and is Head of Government as well as Head of State.


A Republic, as the word indicates, is a public body. It belongs to its people and its Head of State, generally called the President, represents the people. In some countries, the Presidency is a formal position, with little power like the British Queen. India and Germany are example of this.

In such cases the President is not elected directly by the people. In some Republics, such as the United States of America, the President is elected by the people and has the dominant Executive power. In others, such as Sri Lanka or France, the President is elected by the people and has Executive power, but also works with a Prime Minister. 

Executive Power

Unlike a Head of State, a Head of Government is one person in a group that exercises power collectively. However important he is, he is simply the main person in the Cabinet. When executive decisions are made, they are presented as Cabinet decisions, rather than decisions of an individual. The Cabinet consists of Ministers who run various government departments and decide what should be done in their areas of responsibility. Major decisions however, or decisions concerning policy, are brought before the Cabinet, to be taken collectively.

The Executive of a country then is its Cabinet. Executive means ‘doing’ so these are the people who run the daily business of government. Prime Minister means First Minister. When the Cabinet system developed, initially the Prime Minister was simply the most important of those who advised the monarch, who had appointed the Cabinet. As countries developed politically, the advisers, being more representative of the people than a hereditary monarch, took on more decision making power, and their leader became more important than the monarch.

In countries where an Executive President is Head of Government, and therefore of Cabinet, he usually has even more authority in relation to the rest of the Cabinet than a Prime Minister, since he is elected direct. Prime Ministers are not elected directly, but rather through Parliament, by commanding the support of a majority of members of Parliament. Once selected, they appoint other members of the Cabinet as they think suitable.

Legislative and Judicial Power

Parliament is the usual term for the branch of government that makes laws. In practice, since it is the doers who affect our daily lives, when we talk of government, we generally mean the executive branch. However the law is above the government, and therefore the government should act according to law. And the courts, which make up the Judiciary, the third branch of government, can rule that the government has gone against the law, and order it to change its actions.

The main instrument limiting the power of the executive branch of government is the law. Making law is the business of parliament, not the executive, and implementation of law belongs to the courts. And above all three branches of government is the constitution of the country, the basic law according to which the three branches function. So parliament too can only make laws according to the constitution, ie there may be some rights belonging to people which parliament cannot take away.

Controlling the Executive

Modern political systems, with emphasis on the rights of people to govern themselves, have only emerged in the last few hundred years. In most parts of the world, before that, the government of a country, like the country itself, belonged to a monarch. He ruled as he wished, obviously with advisers for the business of government, like modern ministers. Countries had courts however which delivered judgments, and gradually it was established that even the monarch had to act according to law. And even in the making of laws monarchs had advisers. As political systems developed these were not appointed by the monarch as he wished, but were rather supposed to represent the people who were governed.

Yet in most societies such bodies, cabinets and courts and parliaments, served according to the wishes of the monarch. About four hundred years ago however, theories developed about the rights of the governed. The principle that a monarch had absolute power, to decide as he wished, was challenged. Gradually it was established that people had rights with regard to how they should be governed.

At first this did not apply to the executive power of government. That belonged to the monarch, and until just over two hundred years ago kings ruled countries as they wished, with the help of ministers they chose. The main problem before then was to ensure that they observed rules and did not abuse the basic rights of the governed. For this limited aim the principle developed that parliament, which represented the people, should act as a sort of control on the rules by which executive power was exercised.

The emergence of parliamentary power

So it was accepted that laws had to be passed by parliament, ie the laws by which a king governed a country could be changed only with the consent of the people’s representatives. At first this did not take away from the power to act of the monarch, but the idea that there was something above him was an important step in establishing that a State did not simply belong to its Head. This power, the legislative power of parliament, is the root from which parliaments have now become so important all over the world.

In time they added to their power in a very significant area on the basis of their law making. This was with regard to money, which any Executive needs for its work. To raise money a government needs taxes, for which authority comes through laws. The money required by the executive each year is given in a budget, which must be passed by Parliament. If Parliament refuse to pass a budget, the Executive has no funds to do its work.

The two main functions of Parliament then are to pass (or amend) laws, and to approve taxes and the budget required for the executive to function. This second function led to a third way in which Parliament can control the Executive. Since Parliament authorizes funds for the Executive to spend, it must check on expenditure. Most Parliaments then have Committees to monitor government (ie executive) expenditure. In addition, MPs may question members of the executive on what they do, since their actions depend on funds voted by Parliament. In many countries this power is rarely exercised effectively, but an efficient parliament can help ensure that the Executive acts carefully.

The Separation of Powers

In a few countries, such as the United States, the Executive and the Legislature are independent of each other. This is according to a doctrine called ‘The Separation of Powers’, advanced by a political theorist named Montesquieu in the 18th century. Montesquieu believed the people would suffer if any one individual or institution had too much power, so those who made the laws, the Legislative, should be different from those who implemented them, the Executive. The Americans followed his ideas when they drafted their constitution in the 1780s.

However Sri Lanka, along with many other countries, follows the British model which does not separate the Executive from the Legislature. In Britain initially the King had total power. He ruled with the help of a Cabinet that he appointed as he pleased. Gradually Parliament built on its legal authority and it became customary for the King’s First Minister to need the support of Parliament. Then, in the 19th century, it became established that the King could not appoint a Prime Minister unless he had the confidence of Parliament. Now, after a Parliamentary election, the monarch invites the leader of the party which has a majority in Parliament to form the government.

So the Prime Minister, who runs the Executive branch, also controls Parliament. Earlier MPs felt their main responsibility was to the people who had elected them. So they often challenged the executive on various issues, even if they broadly supported it. Now, with allegiance to a party considered more important, even parliamentarians without executive positions rarely challenge their party leader when he is Prime Minister. In countries like Sri Lanka it is almost impossible to do so and remain in the party.

In Britain, and in Sri Lanka which follows the British model in this respect, the party leader also has another method of controlling parliamentarians, namely by offering them executive office. Because there are no limits on the number of Ministers in the Cabinet, leaders ensure the support of Parliamentarians by making them Ministers. In Sri Lanka a category called Ministers outside the Cabinet was also created, to win the loyalty of even more parliamentarians. So, where in Britain there are backbenchers in Parliament, even on the government side, who are critical of some actions while basically supporting government policies, in Sri Lanka you rarely find parliamentarians willing to engage in constructive criticism of their own government. India, which had a similar problem, has now set a limit on the number of Ministers the Prime Minister can appoint. This helps to ensure that a majority in Parliament, even of those supporting the ruling party, remain outside the Executive.

In other countries where you have Executive Presidents, Parliamentarians cannot hold Executive office. In the United States the President constitutes a Cabinet of individuals who are not usually politicians, though each must be approved by Parliament. In France, supposedly a model for the Sri Lankan constitution, the President appoints a Prime Minister who has the confidence of Parliament. This generally means the leader of the party having a majority in parliament. However the Prime Minister, and his Ministers, resign from Parliament to function as executives.

This helps those who remain in Parliament to act as effective watchdogs on the executive, on behalf of the people. In countries following the British system however, the important members in parliament from the governing party are also part of the executive, so they are unlikely, as parliamentarians, to be critical of the executive. This is left to opposition members, who think they have to oppose the government generally, instead of looking at different actions of the executive, and supporting those that are beneficial and opposing harmful ones. Thus parliamentary democracy in countries following the British model means close association between Executive and Legislative, which leaves the people without one of the safeguards they need against the most powerful branch of government.