Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sri Lanka president set to cement grip

By Mel Gunasekera | Agence France-Presse

Sri Lanka's parliament will vote 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 amendments, 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.

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.

"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."

Rajapakse's most vocal backers -- his party, the state media and his three brothers, who hold key public positions -- say the changes are needed to secure the post-war recovery of the country.

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 wielding posters saying "Long live the president!" or "We need a strong president."

"This amendment is much needed for our development," one supporter, 52-year-old Kusum Badra, told AFP.

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 main opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are expected to vote against the changes contained in the bill, which was introduced in parliament in the morning.

"The amendments are intended to perpetuate the authoritarian rule under the facade of constitutionality," said UNP lawmaker Harsha de Silva before the vote.

The TNA, once seen as a proxy of the Tamil Tiger rebels, said the amendments encouraged "unhealthy political influence" and jeopardised good governance and the rule of law.

The proposed changes have also angered lawyers and some religious groups, who have criticised the lack of public scrutiny.

Parliament is to debate and vote on the changes in a single day.

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

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.

A self-confessed hawk, Rajapakse is also under pressure to submit to an international war crimes inquiry into the latter stages of the island's civil war, when thousands of civilians are believed to have died.


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