Sri Lankan trade union activists hold placards as they oppose passage of constitutional amendments outside the national parliament in Colombo on Wednesday. Photo: AFP / Lakruwan Wanniarachchi

Sri Lanka’s parliament on Thursday voted to give President Gotabaya Rajapaksa widespread powers to appoint top officials and dissolve the legislature after an acrimonious two-day debate during which the opposition accused him of becoming a constitutional “dictator.”

The populist leader was elected president in November and swiftly appointed his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister. Gotabaya was a key defence official when his brother was president in the decade to 2015.

One member of the ruling SLPP party broke ranks undermining the two-thirds necessary to pass the bill, but eight opposition defectors saw the legislation through.

The government, which gets political and diplomatic support from China, has said the bill seeks to strengthen Rajapaksa to implement a manifesto promising “strong leadership.”

However Justice minister Ali Sabry told parliament that some provisions granting greater immunity to Rajapaksa and removing financial oversight of state institutions were rolled back after a public outcry.

The president can now sack any minister, including the prime minister, and dissolve parliament after 2.5 years of its five-year term.

Under reforms introduced in 2015, the president was not allowed to hold cabinet portfolios and could sack the 225-member legislature only after 4.5 years.

“Our attempt is to enable the president to exercise people’s power once again,” Sabry said.

Rajapaksa will be able to appoint judges to superior courts and other key government positions, a function previously assigned to a parliamentary oversight panel which included independent commissioners.

Opposition legislator Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam said: “This bill not only leads to authoritarian rule, but a dictator.”

“Parliament will be a servile institution after this bill,” the leader of Sri Lanka’s main Muslim party, Rauff Hakeem, told parliament before the law was passed. “Tyranny crawls in quietly.”

“These are the same steps taken by Hitler of Germany in his early days of politics,” said S.M. Marikkar of the main opposition SJB party.

The powerful Rajapaksa clan has held sway over the island nation’s politics since 2005.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet last month called for “renewed attention” to increasing intimidation of journalists, lawyers and rights activists in Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa has threatened to pull Sri Lanka out of the UN’s human rights council if it keeps accusing Colombo of war crimes, including the killing of 40,000 civilians while crushing Tamil rebels in 2009.

Pompeo is coming

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will ask Sri Lanka to make “difficult” choices on its growing relationship with China amid criticism the island is sliding toward authoritarianism, an official said Thursday.

Pompeo plans to warn of risks surrounding China on a trip next week that will take him to Colombo as well as India, Maldives and Indonesia.

The Rajapaksa clan enjoys diplomatic and economic support from China, which lent billions of dollars for projects to Sri Lanka when Mahinda Rajapaksa was president – including several white elephants that left the island with a mountain of debt.

Dean Thompson, the top US diplomat for South Asia, said Pompeo will raise with Sri Lanka “human rights, reconciliation and our common commitment to democracy.”

“We’re looking to frame a discussion with them about a more positive trajectory,” he told reporters.

“We encourage Sri Lanka to review the options we offer for transparent and sustainable economic development, in contrast to discriminatory and opaque practices,” he said, in clear reference to China.

“We urge Sri Lanka to make difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity.”

Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, last year scrapped a previously planned trip to Sri Lanka that was meant to show solidarity after Islamist attacks killed 269 people on Easter Sunday.

Pompeo on the same trip will be the first US secretary of state since Colin Powell in 2004 to visit Maldives, an archipelago which has also seen a spurt of interest from China, alarming US-friendly regional power India.