Sri Lanka’s Parliament debates constitutional amendment ending term limits for president

By Bharatha Mallawarachi, AP
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sri Lanka debates ending term limits for president

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s Parliament began debating a constitutional amendment on Wednesday that would allow the president to stay in office for an unlimited number of terms, a move critics say could lead to dictatorship.

The main opposition group, the United National Party, boycotted the debate and burned an effigy of President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a protest in the capital. However, the governing coalition has enough seats to secure the two-thirds majority required in the 225-member Parliament to change the charter.

The constitution currently limits the president to two six-year terms, so Rajapaksa’s term starting in November would be his last.

Prime Minister Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Jayaratne said there was nothing undemocratic in the proposal.

He said the president would receive the same right as other elected representatives to seek office without restrictions.

Rajapaksa is popular among the country’s Sinhalese majority for crushing a 25-year separatist insurgency by ethnic Tamil rebels. But critics say he has exploited that goodwill to consolidate power with the aim of setting up a family dynasty. Two of his brothers are senior ministers, another is defense secretary and his son is a lawmaker.

The proposed amendment also would scrap a provision requiring the president to receive the approval of independent commissions in appointing officials to the judiciary, police, public service and the elections office.

“This bill threatens to finally nail the coffin in which the democracy of this country has been laid,” M.A. Sumanthiran, a lawmaker for the Tamil National Alliance, the largest party representing ethnic Tamils, told Parliament.

Opposition supporters held protests in some parts of capital, but were outnumbered by government supporters brought in from different parts of the country who held pictures of Rajapaksa to show solidarity with the government.

The opposition UNP burned an effigy of Rajapaksa and carried a coffin symbolizing the death of democracy.

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