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Party rebel to challenge Rajapaksa
November 22, 2014
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COLOMBO: A senior minister quit Sri Lanka’s ruling party on Friday to stand as the main opposition’s candidate in January elections, accusing President Mahinda Rajapaksa of being a corrupt dictator.

As organisers confirmed the election would be on Jan.8, Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena said he was confident of toppling his boss in an announcement that earned him the sack from his other post as general secretary of the president’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Underlining the scale of the threat facing Rajapaksa, Sirisena was joined at his defection announcement by former president Chandrika Kumaratunga who also said she was leaving the SLFP.

The defection by Sirisena to the main opposition United National Party (UNP) appears to have taken Rajapaksa by surprise and represents a major challenge to the authority of the region’s longest-serving ruler.

“I thank the UNP for choosing me as the common opposition candidate,” Sirisena told reporters in Colombo. “We will definitely win.”

Rajapaksa declared on Thursday that he will seek an unprecedented third term as president — a move that was only made possible after he pushed through changes to the constitution.

While Rajapaksa remains generally popular with majority Sinhalese voters after overseeing the end of a 37-year war against Tamil separatists in 2009, critics say he has become increasingly authoritarian.

“The country is heading towards a dictatorship,” said 63-year-old Sirisena, who also accused the president of nepotism and corruption.

“The entire economy and every aspect of society is controlled by one family.” The president’s brothers include the speaker of parliament Chamal Rajapaksa, the economic development minister Basil Rajapaksa and the powerful defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

His eldest son Namal is a lawmaker and heads the SLFP’s youth wing.

“Corruption is rampant, there is no rule of law,” added Sirisena who promised to reverse the constitutional amendments brought in under Rajapaksa which have increased the powers of the president.

“I urge you to support me to scrap the executive presidency. I will scrap this executive within 100 days.”

His endorsement by the former president Kumaratunga, who is the daughter of two former prime ministers, is seen as a major boost to Sirisena’s electoral fortunes.

“After nine years I am ending my silence. I have decided to re-enter active politics to help bring down a corrupt regime,” said Kumaratunga who has kept a low profile since handing over the leadership of the SLFP to Rajapaksa in 2005.

“The question is whether we allow one family to destroy the country or restore decency in politics.” Kumaratunga, who served as president from 1994-2005, told reporters.

“It will be a betrayal of the nation if I do not help this group.”

Three other ministers appeared alongside Sirisena to declare that they were also defecting.

Officials close to Rajapaksa said that the president only realised that Sirisena was about to jump ship a couple of days ago.

Rajapaksa had believed the UNP would field its own leader and former premier Ranil Wickremesinghe in the contest.

Agence France-Presse

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