Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sri Lanka debates ending presidential term limits

By Lydia Polgreen | The New York Times

Sri Lanka’s Parliament on Wednesday debated a proposal to remove presidential term limits from the Constitution, paving the way for the popular president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to run for a third term and cement his family’s grip on power.

Bolstered by winning nearly 60 percent of the vote in the presidential election in January and the near-collapse of the main opposition party, Mr. Rajapaksa is likely to rally enough votes to pass the amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament, analysts said. Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a referendum was not required to make the change.

The amendment also includes provisions that could prove even more far-reaching by increasing the president’s power to act without oversight, legal experts said.

It would remove an independent advisory council that the president currently must consult before appointing people to important, nonpartisan posts like Supreme Court judgeships and Sri Lanka’s human rights and electoral commissions. In its place would be a parliamentary council that the president could ignore if it failed to act.

“It would mean that in the future the president will be in control of many independent institutions,” said Rohan Edrisinha, a Sri Lankan constitutional scholar. “That is going to have a serious impact on justice, human rights, free elections and the future of our democracy.”

Mr. Rajapaksa was re-elected in January by a wide margin after his government’s decisive May 2009 defeat of the Tamil Tiger insurgency, which had raged for 25 years and defied the efforts of his predecessors. He easily defeated his main opponent, Sarath Fonseka, a former general who had been a close ally but broke with the president. A motley coalition of opposition parties drafted Mr. Fonseka, who had executed the ruthless and highly successful military strategy that defeated the 25-year-old Tamil Tiger insurgency.

After the election Mr. Fonseka was arrested and court-martialed. The government said he had broken the law by politicking while in uniform and mishandling weapons contracts, but his supporters saw the arrest as evidence that the president was solidifying his grip on power by going after opponents.

Sri Lanka’s Constitution features a strong executive presidency, and many analysts have argued that a country with such a long history of religious, ethnic and regional strife needs to devolve, not concentrate power. Indeed, Mr. Rajapaksa himself campaigned on promises to give more power to regional governments within Sri Lanka as a way to avoid future conflicts with its Tamil and Muslim minorities.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s spokesman, Lucien Rajakarunanayake, said that given the president’s popularity and the difficult road ahead in rebuilding the country, it made sense to remove term limits.

“This is a president who has a huge mandate and has to do a great deal of work to make sure the country moves forward,” he said.

He dismissed the notion that the abolition of the independent advisory council would make the president more powerful. The previous panel was perpetually deadlocked, he said, and the new body would work more efficiently.

Dayan Jayatilleka, a diplomat political analyst who was Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United Nations until he was removed in 2009, said that the changes simply formalize the vast enlargement of presidential power that has already take place.

“It is a constitutionalization of the wartime presidency,” he said.

But he added that opposition politicians are as much to blame for this expansion of presidential power. The main opposition party, the United National Party, is in shambles, and several of its members have defected to support Mr. Rajapaksa’s amendment. Sri Lanka’s Constitution, written when the country had a strong two-party system, did not envision that the second party would become so weak, Mr. Jayatilleka said.

“In the past neither party would be sufficiently popular or unpopular to permit constitutional change,” he said. “Clearly that has changed.”

© The New York Times

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