BANJUL (Reuters) - The Gambian parliament's rejection this week of a new constitution that would have limited the number of presidential terms represents a "dark day" for democracy, the leader of the West African nation's main opposition party said on Wednesday.
The draft bill included a two-term limit, which would have applied retroactively, preventing President Adama Barrow from emulating other West African leaders who have used new charters as reset buttons on their mandates.
After days of intense debate, 31 lawmakers in Parliament voted to reject the bill on Tuesday, while 21 voted to approve it for a national referendum.
"Sept. 22 marks a very dark day in the post-dictatorship in Gambia," said Ousainou Darboe, who leads the United Democratic Party.
This decision "highlights the unwillingness of the Barrow-led administration to prioritise public and national interest," he said at a press conference.
Barrow came to power after a 2016 election, ending 22 years of authoritarian rule by Yahya Jammeh.
After winning plaudits for committing to respect rights and investigate abuses under Jammeh, Barrow has faced sometimes violent public protests since he reneged on a promise to step down after three years in office.
Gambia's next presidential election is scheduled for 2021. Unless a new constitution bill is proposed, Barrow will have no limits on how many five-year terms he can seek.
Other lawmakers said they rejected the new constitution because its laws would apply retroactively, which they said was unlawful under the existing constitution.
"We don't legally have the power to pass this draft constitution with a retroactive clause," said minority leader Samba Jallow, whose National Reconciliation Party backs Barrow's National People's Party.
(Reporting by Pap Saine and Lamin Jahateh; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Alex Richardson and Leslie Adler)