Despite fears of a looming all-powerful executive presidency, Sri Lankan lawmakers overwhelmingly voted on Wednesday to bring in an amendment to the country's Constitution to abolish the two-limit term for Presidents and expand the powers of the country's top executive office.
The new 18th amendment (18 A) gives President Mahinda Rajapaksa, 64, unfettered powers to make crucial appoints in the judiciary and public service commissions.
Following the amendment, he is now eligible for election at the end of his current -- his second -- term in 2016. He won his first Presidential election in November, 2005.
The Rajapaksa-led United People's Freedom Alliance needed 150 votes (of the 225-seat Parliament) to adopt the proposals.
On Wednesday evening, it got 161 votes; 17 MPs voted against the amendment. The voting also left the main Opposition, United National Party (UNP) in tatters with several of its MPs defecting to the government.
The amendment arguably made Rajapaksa one among the most powerful Presidents in the world.
"We are presenting the 18th amendment to the constitution today because we believe it will give us a strong leader to fast-track economic development after the war," Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne told parliament.
Critics said that Rajapaksa used his popularity garnered after presiding over the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 to further his own cause and smother opposition. He has already been accused of brazenly promoting family: three of his brothers hold crucial government posts and his son is a young MP.
"Today marks the death of democracy," AFP quoted opposition lawmaker M. Sumanthiran, a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) member, as having said in Parliament.
"History has shown us that too much power centered on one individual is bad for good governance," he said.
Daily Mirror online quoted jailed former army chief and MP, Sarath Fonseka, as having said that the government was opening the door for a military coup in the country by introducing the amendment. Speaking at a press briefing in Parliament he said that Rajapaksa who is heading for a dictatorship will ruin himself, his ministers, his own supporters and the future of his own family members.
The UNP decided to boycott proceedings but not before at least six of its MPs defected to the Government side while Parliament was still debating the amendment.
"The government is acting undemocratically by getting our members to vote in favour of the amendments. Some of them have been offered various positions in the government or threatened with initiating legal action against them where they could be taken into custody," UNP general secretary Tissa Attanayaka said.
Anti-government protests were organised in Colombo while civil society groups held candle-light vigils to protest against the amendment.
Several pro-government protests were also held with supporters saying the move would strengthen the hands of the government to run a country emerging from decades of civil conflict.