February 2, 2010 / 11:35 AM / 10 years ago

Sri Lanka president gets extra year in power

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s supreme court on Tuesday ruled President Mahinda Rajapaksa can begin his new term in November, giving him an extra year in power after he called polls two years before his first term was to expire.

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa gestures during a meeting with the international media in Colombo January 27, 2010. REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

Rajapaksa last week won a new six-year term in a landslide victory, correctly gambling that his popularity after leading Sri Lanka to victory in a 25-year war with the Tamil Tiger separatists in May would carry him.

“The Supreme Court says the new term begins on November 19 this year,” an official in the president’s office said on condition of anonymity. A senior presidential ally, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the date.

The court’s decision, following a request by Rajapaksa, cements his firm hold on the reins of the Indian Ocean island nation until 2016, despite opposition vows of street protests on Wednesday over what it says was a stolen election.

Sri Lanka’s booming stock market appeared to shrug off the political developments, rising further into record territory with a half-point gain on Tuesday to hit 3,709.13 after reaching an all-time high of 3,735.86 during trading.

“The market will hardly react to this kind of political news. At the moment, investors need to see policymakers focussing on the economy, rather than elections and politics,” said Channa Amaratunge, director at Colombo’s CT Capital.

ARMY OFFICERS PURGED

The president’s latest victory came as the government removed 14 military officers it said had offered political support to General Sarath Fonseka, the former army commander who was Rajapaksa’s opposition rival in a bitterly personal race.

Fourteen officers, including five major-generals and five brigadiers, have been made to retire with full benefits, the Director of the Media Centre for National Security, Lakshman Hulugalle, said on Tuesday. One brigadier was arrested, he said.

“Retention of such officers who have violated military discipline and the code of ethics by actively participating in political work during their tenure is considered a direct threat to the national security,” he said.

The political veteran Rajapaksa won a bruising electoral duel with an 18-point margin over Fonseka, who stood victorious with the president in May but fell out with him, quit the army and entered the race as a common opposition candidate.

Since the day after the January 26 poll, the government has said it was investigating a suspected coup and assassination plot involving former army officials it said were allied to Fonseka.

Troops surrounded the Colombo hotel where Fonseka stayed after the poll, which the government said was to observe army deserters with him it suspected of hatching the coup plot.

Ten were arrested, and another 15 former military officials were arrested at Fonseka’s office on Saturday after police commandoes raided it. Simultaneously, the military said it had transferred 40 officers, most seen as Fonseka loyalists.

The general denies wrongdoing and accuses the government of indirectly trying to have him assassinated by cutting his security detail. He survived a 2006 Tamil Tiger suicide bombing, and says he is still a target.

By calling an early vote, Rajapaksa gambled with two years of his first term, due to expire in November 2011. The supreme court in 1999 took a year away from his immediate predecessor, after she called an early vote and took her oath right after winning.

Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez; Editing by David Fox

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