Sri Lanka’s main opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena yesterday accused long-serving President Mahinda Rajapakse of heading a corrupt regime, as he formally launched his bid for January’s elections.
Sirisena, 63, who quit as health minister last week from Rajapakse’s government to join the main opposition United National Party, told cheering crowds that he was confident of ousting his former boss at the January 8 poll.
“I walked out of the government because I could no longer remain in a corrupt regime which does not respect rule of law or the independence of the judiciary,” Sirisena said in the old capital of Polonnaruwa in a central region known as the country’s rice bowl.
Sirisena spoke at a hastily arranged public meeting at an abandoned mill — after government authorities blocked his and other opposition parties from holding rallies in public parks.
Rajapakse, 69, is seeking a record third term — a move that was only made possible after he pushed through changes to the constitution.
While Rajapakse remains generally popular with majority Sinhalese voters after overseeing the end of a separatist war by ethnic Tamil rebels in 2009, critics say he has become increasingly authoritarian.
Sirisena has secured the support of key, smaller opposition parties for the upcoming election, representing a major challenge to Rajapakse, the region’s longest-serving leader.
“Maithripala Sirisena represents the boiling resentment within the government of the Rajapakse family rule,” said former fisheries minister Rajitha Senaratne, one of 11 members of Rajapakse’s government to quit and support Sirisena in recent weeks.
The president’s brothers include the speaker of parliament, the economic development minister and the powerful defence secretary.
The defections — including that of another cabinet minister, Naveen Dissanayake, yesterday — have also dealt Rajapakse and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party a severe blow.
“I cannot remain in a government that is so corrupt,” Dissanayake, the minister for public administration reform, told reporters in Colombo yesterday.
Rajapakse also faces international pressure for resisting a UN-mandated probe into allegations as many as 40,000 people were killed in the war’s final push.
Sirisena, a former rice farmer, offered fertiliser subsidies and promised to write off loans taken by public servants to buy motorcycles, if he was elected to power.
He said he had warned Rajapakse six months ago to change his ways or risk new
unrest in the country.
“He was leading the country down a dangerous road to destruction,” said Sirisena. “I will win the January 8 election and I will usher in a constitutional revolution.”
He also announced he would enter a formal pact today with the parties backing him, which include a rainbow opposition from right-wing groups to Marxists.
Many of the opposition speakers yesterday slammed Rajapakse and his family for their extensive business dealings and domination the government and vowed to end the president’s nine-year rule.
Sirisena and other opposition figures received Buddhist blessings at a 12th century temple before addressing thousands of supporters in Polonnaruwa, which was decked out in flags bearing green, blue, red and yellow, the colours of parties
Unassuming Sirisena is an unlikely candidate to challenge charismatic Rajapakse who won a landslide for a second term in 2010 after he declared the end to the 37-year-long war that claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.
After his 2010 win, Rajapakse went onto re-write the constitution and removed the two-term limit on the presidency and gave himself more powers over public servants as well as judges. The move was criticised by international rights groups as autocratic.Last updated:
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