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S.Lanka president set to cement grip with key vote

[AFP, Wednesday, 8 September 2010 09:48 No Comment]

ALeqM5ht2M2bTw-KlFkDjW_5tfFK7ZveFw Sri Lanka’s parliament votes Wednesday on constitutional reforms enabling President Mahinda Rajapakse to seek a third term, in changes critics say point to the country’s slide into autocracy.

Under the proposed amendment, the two-term limit will be scrapped, allowing the populist Rajapakse, who was resoundingly re-elected for the second time in January, to stand at the next polls, scheduled for 2016.

A draft bill was cleared on Tuesday by the Supreme Court, which informed parliament that the constitution could be changed by a two-thirds majority vote — something Rajapakse, 64, looks almost certain to secure.

The amendment also hands him greater control over nominally independent institutions, giving him powers to appoint officials to key posts in the judiciary, police, election commission and central bank.

"We are presenting the 18th amendment to the constitution today because we believe it will give us a strong leader to fast-track economic development after the war," Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne told parliament.

Rajapakse, who oversaw the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels in May last year after decades of conflict, already stands accused of using the immense power of his position as executive president to stifle any opposition.

"Today marks the death of democracy," said opposition lawmaker M. Sumanthiran, a member of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and human rights lawyer, during the parliamentary session that will culminate in a vote.

"History has shown us that too much power centered around one individual is bad for good governance," Sumanthiran added.

The main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), has decided to boycott proceedings.

Rajapakse’s most vocal backers — his party, the state media and his three brothers, who hold key public positions — argue that the changes will ensure stability as the mostly Buddist nation recovers from 37 years of conflict.

They also point to a requirement under the amendment for the president to appear before parliament every three months — though this nod to accountability is limited by the inability of lawmakers to challenge the head of state.

Thousands of pro-government supporters gathered in central Colombo on Wednesday, blocking roads around the parliament and brandishing posters saying "Long live the president!" or "We need a strong president."

Rajapakse, who grew up in the rural south, says his urban opposition critics in Colombo are simply biased because of his background.

"They fear I will secure a third term," he told newspaper editors on Monday. "But they (opposition political parties) would not have resisted so fiercely if someone with an elitist background had sought to do so."

The UNP, the TNA and defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka, a former war hero who fell out with the president, have led political opposition to the bill.

UNP lawmaker Harsha de Silva has said the amendment was "intended to perpetuate the authoritarian rule under the facade of constitutionality," while the TNA says it will encourage "unhealthy political influence."

The proposed changes have also been condemned by lawyers, rights groups and some religious groups, who have criticised the lack of public scrutiny.

"The amendment is seen as marking the end of liberal democracy in Sri Lanka," the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission said, labelling the day "Black Wednesday."

The head of the Sri Lankan Anglican church, Bishop Duleep de Chickera, said the move "will inevitably lead to a further, dangerous politicisation of our national institutions and a speedier, destructive erosion of our already fragile democratic culture."

The state media, criticised by election observers during polls earlier this year for its biased coverage in favour of Rajapakse, has given its unequivocal backing to the president.

"It is a historic day and a great day to further democratic governance in the country," said a presenter on state Rupavahini television during morning coverage of the rally in Colombo.

[Full Coverage]

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