November 11, 2014 / 2:48 PM / 3 years ago

Sri Lanka's Supreme Court okays president's third term

Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, addresses the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York September 24, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court has cleared President Mahinda Rajapaksa to stand for a third six-year term and declare snap presidential polls after he completes four years in office, his party said in parliament on Tuesday.

The Supreme Court had responded to an approach by Rajapaksa to determine if there was any constitutional obstacle to him standing for a third term, something the top lawyers’ association had opposed.

“The Supreme Court has unanimously decided the president has no legal impediments to contest a further term,” and the president has the authority to call for an election,” Nimal Siripala De Silva, leader of the house, told parliament.

Rajapaksa and his family have a tight grip on Sri Lanka’s economy and on politics which critics characterize as an unusually personalized system of government. He has also been criticized over human rights standards.

The government has said it will hold an early election in January amid some indications its popularity is fading. But to secure another term as president, Rajapaksa had to ensure the constitutional path was clear.

Jathika Hela Unrumaya, a hardline nationalist Buddhist party and a coalition partner of Rajapaksa’s ruling party, which is critical of the president’s decision to go for a third term, said the Court’s move had undermined confidence in the rule of law.

“With this decision, the confidence on the judiciary will decline,” Athuraliye Rathana, a Buddhist monk, told Reuters.

J.C. Weliamuna, a lawyer said it was regrettable that the matter was not handled in an open court.

Many political analysts had expected the decision to be in favor of Rajapaksa. The Supreme Court is headed by one of his allies and the former attorney general, who was appointed by the president to the post in early 2013.

Rajapaksa abolished a two-term presidential limit in 2010 by a constitutional amendment, but there is some debate about whether this would allow the incumbent to stand again.

The country’s Bar Association has argued he cannot stand for a third term without a parliamentary vote to make scrapping the two-term limit retrospective. It would then have to be approved by a referendum.

Rajapaksa, 68, came to power in 2005 and retained the presidency in 2010 on a wave of popularity after the military defeat of ethnic Tamil rebels in 2009, ending a 26-year civil war.

Rajapaksa has been accused of rights abuses and nepotism. He insists any relatives in parliament are there because people elected them and not because he chose them.

His ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) party won a local election in the southeastern province of Uva in September but with sharply lower support.

Reporting by Shihar Aneez; editing by Ralph Boulton

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