Sri Lanka eliminates term limits for presidency; many fear it will pave way to dictatorship

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's Parliament voted to eliminate term limits for the president Wednesday, a move critics say could lead to dictatorship.

The amendment also will tighten President Mahinda Rajapaksa's hold on power by giving him total control over the judiciary, police and the civil service.

The main opposition group, the United National Party, boycotted the vote and burned an effigy of Rajapaksa at a protest in the capital.

But the constitutional amendment passed easily, with 161 votes in the 225-member Parliament. That's 11 votes more than the two-thirds majority required. Seventeen lawmakers voted against it.

Six United National Party members and one member from the Tamil National Alliance — the main party representing ethnic minority Tamils — defected and voted with the government.

The constitution used to limit the president to two six-year terms, so Rajapaksa's term starting in November would have been his last.

Prime Minister Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Jayaratne has defended the move as giving the president the same right that other elected representatives have to seek office without restrictions.

Rajapaksa is popular among the country's Sinhalese majority for crushing a 25-year separatist insurgency by ethnic Tamil rebels. But critics say he has exploited that goodwill to consolidate power with the aim of setting up a family dynasty. Two of his brothers are senior ministers, another is defense secretary and his son is a lawmaker.

The amendment also scrapped a provision requiring the president to receive the approval of independent commissions in appointing officials to the judiciary, police, public service and the elections office.

"This bill threatens to finally nail the coffin in which the democracy of this country has been laid," M.A. Sumanthiran, a lawmaker for the Tamil National Alliance, told Parliament during a debate before the vote.

Opposition supporters held protests in some parts of capital, but were outnumbered by government supporters brought in from different parts of the country who held pictures of Rajapaksa to show solidarity with the government.