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Sri Lanka president handed sweeping new powers

[AFP, Thursday, 9 September 2010 08:08 No Comment]

Sri Lankan ministers denied that the president now enjoys dictatorial powers under a post-war constitutional revamp, but observers are worried about the chilling effect on democracy.

The national parliament voted late Wednesday in favour of the 18th amendment to the 1978 constitution, scrapping a two-term limit on the presidency and handing sweeping new powers to President Mahinda Rajapakse.

The law grants the head of state the ability to appoint officials to key posts in previously quasi-independent institutions such as the judiciary, police and election commission.

"The constitution was used to consolidate power, without rebuilding governance structures," commented Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the local think-tank the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"It’s a setback for democracy. Parliament is now a rubber-stamp institution, It’s a dark period for us," he added.

The reforms were debated on Wednesday and passed with 161 in favour and 17 against in the 225-member parliament. The main opposition United National Party (UNP) boycotted the debate, saying it did not want to be "contaminated."

Government ministers argued throughout the parliamentary session that the changes were needed to ensure stability in the country after the end of its 37-year ethnic conflict in May last year.

Rajapakse ordered a huge military offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels during his first term, which wiped out the decades-old insurgency but has since been dogged by allegations of war crimes.

"The changes will bring economic prosperity to our motherland and strengthen the president’s hand to speed up vital economic development after the war ended," Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka said Wednesday.

His colleague Wimal Weerawansa, housing minister, added: "We are not going in for a dictatorship. If the president wanted to be a dictator, he has enough powers without amending the current constitution to do so.

"The dictatorship story is a myth planted by the opposition in the minds of the people."

The head of rights group Transparency International in Sri Lanka, J.C. Weliamuna, disagreed, saying the hawkish Rajapakse had systematically weakened civil society, the opposition and the media over the past three years.

"He has unlimited powers now. That’s dangerous," Weliamuna said.

Rajapakse’s reputation was built on the military victory that ended the island nation’s conflict, which endeared him to his core supporters in the majority Sinhalese ethnic group.

He has also overseen a period of sharp post-war economic growth and has promised to heal and unite the bitterly divided Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups which were on opposing sides of the conflict.

[Full Coverage]

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