Rajapaksa for ever? Sri Lankan ruling party wants presidential limit lifted

Debate is growing over plans to bring in amendments that would allow president to run for an unprecedented third term in 2016.

COLOMBO // Sri Lanka's ruling majority is planning to push forward constitutional amendments that would allow for unlimited presidential terms, sparking an outcry from opposition groups and left-leaning members of its own coalition. Debate is growing over plans by the president Mahinda Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led coalition to bring in amendments that would allow Mr Rajapaksa to run for an unprecedented third term in 2016.

The main opposition United National Party (UNP) and the third-largest party in Sri Lanka, the People's Liberation Front (JVP), have already announced their objection to the move and have accused the coalition of backroom dealings. On Tuesday, the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe told reporters that the government should place the proposals for constitutional reforms before the country. "Earlier, committees in, and outside, parliament were appointed in this respect [to discuss the reforms]. Why is it done in secret now?" he said.

The government has been keeping fairly quiet about the planned reforms. The only announcement came at a news conference on May 10 by Maithripala Sirisena, the health minister and secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the largest party in the ruling coalition. In addition to the removal of presidential term limits, Mr Sirisena said reforms being considered include the creation of a senate as a second chamber of parliament and the removal of the Constitutional Council, which appoints leaders in public service, the elections office, the police and human rights monitors. The council's powers would be transferred to the president.

To pass, the amendments would need the support of two thirds of parliament; the ruling coalition is six seats short of this super majority. It is also possible the amendments may have to be passed by a popular referendum, according to the Colombo-based constitutional lawyer JC Weliamuna, who added that "this needs to be studied". Mr Rajapaksa has a steamroller majority in parliament after easily winning the presidential election and wiping out the opposition at parliamentary polls that followed.

Leaders of three leftist parties in Mr Rajapaska's coalition were not in favour of some of the amendments, particularly the one allowing presidents to serve an unlimited number of years, they said at a meeting this month that was chaired by Mr Rajapaksa. "Our position has always been to abolish the executive presidential system and there is some kind of national consensus on this. And we expressed this view to the president," Vasudeva Nanayakkara, an MP from the Democratic Left Front, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

In the past few years, political parties including the ruling party and those from the opposition, have publicly stated that they are in favour of scrapping the presidential system or reducing its powers. Under the current presidential system, in force since 1978, the incumbent is immune from prosecution and does not answer to parliament, among other wide-ranging powers. Mr Nanayakkara said left-leaning parties in the coalition propose that if the presidential system is scrapped, Mr Rajapaksa could again come to power as an elected prime minister, which would make him accountable to parliament.

However, Mr Nanayakkara said that opposing the Freedom Party's plans does not mean "we would leave the government". "The president told us the new provision is to ensure stability. He said that whenever two terms of an elected president ends, there is an issue of stability," he said. He said leftist parties in the ruling coalition are also not in favour of dismantling the Constitutional Council. The council, which includes members of opposition parties, is independent of the president and no council appointee can be removed by the president.

In the past month, newspapers have been reporting plans by the government to amend the constitution to enable the president to serve any number of six-year terms compared to the current limit of two terms. "The government is determined to go ahead with the proposals with or without the wishes of the people," noted Jehan Perera, a political columnist for the Colombo-based, Daily Island newspaper SI Keethaponcalan, a political scientist and head of the political science department at Colombo University, echoed Mr Perera, saying: "People may not like it but they won't react against the government."

Mr Perera says people are also opposed to dismantling the Constitutional Council because that could be seen as a consolidation of power. "But the people don't have a choice." Mr Keethaponcalan said he believes the constitutional reforms would be approved without a fuss because the government has a comfortable majority in parliament. "The Left parties in the ruling coalition will also back these as they have done in the past."