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Sri Lanka to drop plans stripping president's executive powers

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Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, pictured here in New Delhi on February 16, 2015, plans to dissolve parliament and call a general election

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, pictured here in New Delhi on February 16, 2015, plans to dissolve parliament and call a general election (AFP Photo/Prakash Singh)

Sri Lanka said Thursday it was dropping promised plans to strip the president of some of his executive powers after the Supreme Court ruled that the move required a referendum.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he was withdrawing sections of a bill on transferring presidential powers to the premier as part of election pledges to turn Sri Lanka into a parliamentary democracy.

But Wickremesinghe said he was forging ahead with the rest of the key bill including on independence for Sri Lanka's police, judiciary and other state institutions by setting up independent bodies to oversee them.

The decision comes after the Supreme Court ruled that elements of the bill to amend the constitution required a referendum -- something the government says is too costly.

"I am prepared to drop the provisions that require approval at a national referendum," Wickremesinghe told parliament as the court's ruling was read out to lawmakers.

President Maithripala Sirisena defeated former strongman Mahinda Rajapakse at the January election partly on public anger over the string of powers that he accumulated during his decade in charge.

The court said removing the president's powers over hiring and firing of government ministers, along with a proposal to give the election commission more authority required a referendum.

Rajapakse, who was commander-in-chief and head of the cabinet, removed the two-term limit on the presidency and also handed himself more powers over the judiciary and public servants.

Sirisena said he would push ahead with a vote in parliament on the bill which would now be amended -- but which would still include bringing back a two-term presidential limit.

Addressing a public meeting in his home constituency of Polonnaruwa, Sirisena said he hoped the vote would be held by April 20 so that he could dissolve parliament and call a general election.

"The confusion and political uncertainty will end after we have a fresh parliamentary election," he said.

Sirisena's party has pledged to dissolve parliament on April 23 to allow for snap parliamentary elections, almost a year ahead of schedule, in a bid to strengthen its hold on power and push ahead with reforms.