Sri Lanka parliament passes diluted reforms

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 28, 2015 2:12 PM

By Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s parliament overwhelmingly passed reforms on Tuesday reducing some of the president’s powers, in a move that did not go as far as President Maithripala Sirisena had promised but is nevertheless seen as a victory for the leader.

Sirisena became president in January after he defected from the party of the former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose rule had become increasingly authoritarian and is the subject of multiple investigations into allegations of corruption and rights violations. Rajapaksa has denied all the accusations.

In 2010, after his government crushed a decades-long Tamil separatist insurgency, Rajapaksa consolidated his powers. He amended the constitution to remove a two-term limit and abolish independent commissions for elections, the police, judiciary and public service.

Sirisena, a health minister in Rajapaksa’s government, alleged Rajapaksa abused power and promised to abolish the executive powers of a president.

However, he has had to scale back his plans after the island nation's Supreme Court said the government needed a referendum if it wanted to transfer powers such as the make-up of the cabinet to the prime minister from the president.

The reforms passed on Tuesday limit the president's term to two five-year tenures instead of unlimited six-year terms, but keep the rest of the executive powers over the cabinet of ministers intact.

Sirisena also ran into opposition from within his own party and other members of parliament over a plan to appoint a majority of independent members to a constitutional council, which in turn will re-establish the independent commissions to oversee various areas of governance.

The 10-member constitutional council will now have seven members of parliament and three independent members, instead of three legislators and seven independent members.

The change disappointed Sirisena’s coalition partner United National Party, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

"I have some issues on that," Wickremesinghe told parliament before the vote. "But at least it is a good compromise."

During the final debate, the opposition turned down an attempt to prevent a president dissolving parliament a year after it was elected. Sirisena had hoped to extend that term to 4-1/2 years.

The reforms that were passed gained an overwhelming majority - 212 in favor, one against - in the 225-member parliament after a two-day debate.

"All in all ... it is definitely a victory for the people," Dayan Jayatilake, a political analyst and a former Sri Lankan diplomat told Reuters of the "hard negotiations".

(Editing by Paritosh Bansal and Alison Williams)