Church leaders and activists in Sri Lanka are warning that the Indian Ocean island could become a “constitutional dictatorship” after the country’s parliament voted changes to the nation’s fundamental law.
“We are totally disappointed and frustrated over the passing of this constitutional amendment which we had opposed in every way,” Rohan Edirasinghe, the spokesperson for the church-backed Centre for Policy Alternatives, told ENInews Sept. 10 from Colombo.
Despite widespread criticism from rights groups, Sri Lanka’s legislature on Sept. 8 agreed the constitutional changes by a required two-thirds majority. The changes include removing a two-term limit to the presidency, and giving the president greater control over bodies such as the police and judiciary.
The amendment to the constitution follows the electoral victory earlier in 2010 of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which came after he crushed a 26-year bloody campaign by ethnic Tamil rebels for autonomy in the north and east of the island.
Several opposition lawmakers voted with the government while the main opposition alliance boycotted the vote.
A day before the parliament voted on the measure, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court rejected a plea by the church-backed group for a referendum on the constitutional amendment.
“We have been let down by everyone: the government, the opposition and the judiciary,” lamented Edirasinghe, an Anglican. He noted that the changes could make Sri Lanka a “constitutional dictatorship” by lifting the two six-term bar for the post of executive president without “adequate checks and balances.”
Before the vote, Anglican Bishop Duleep de Chickera of Colombo had called for the constitutional amendment to be withdrawn. “Many sections of the population are deeply alarmed at the possible repercussions the amendment will have on our system of democratic governance,” he said in a statement.
The bishop also warned that the constitutional changes would weaken key autonomous structures in Sri Lanka due to the executive president being given the powers “to select and appoint persons to serve on the crucial commissions that are meant to safeguard the democratic rights of the people.”
De Chickera said the election commission, the judicial services commission, the national police commission and the bribery commission are all bodies whose autonomy and credibility may be affected by the measure.
The National Peace Council, which includes churches among its members, said there is “no evidence of popular support for the changes proposed by the government.” It said that “not even drafts of the constitutional amendment were placed before the people,” for their reaction.