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Rajapaksa challenges president
August 15, 2015
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COLOMBO: Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa openly challenged his successor on Friday, demanding he respect the “will of the people,” after the country’s new leader vetoed his ambitions to become prime minister.

In a tersely written letter, Rajapaksa rejected President Maithripala Sirisena’s accusations against him as “baseless” and hinted he should head the government if his party won the vote.

The two men belong to the same party and were allies until late last year, when Sirisena quit as health minister to stand against the veteran strongman in the Jan.8 presidential election.

On Thursday, Sirisena accused Rajapaksa of fuelling communal hatred on the island and said he would choose one of seven senior members of their United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) as prime minister should it win Monday’s general election.

“Even if I have to intervene to form a coalition, you will not be the prime minister,” Sirisena said in a five-page letter to Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa lambasted the president over the claims.

“The allegations you have made against me are baseless. You have relied on outsiders to form these accusations,” said Rajapaksa.

“I wholeheartedly reject them.”

But Rajapaksa loyalists said the letter could damage their chances with just hours to go until campaigning ends, and appealed to the independent elections commissioner to bar the media from reporting it.

The UPFA is seen as unlikely to prevail in the vote.

Many observers were stunned by Sirisena’s victory over Rajapaksa, who had been in power for nearly a decade and oversaw the crushing of the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in 2009.

Although Rajapaksa is reviled by large sectors of the minority Tamil community, he retains widespread support among ethnic Sinhalese voters and his rallies have drawn big crowds.

Rajapaksa is standing as a candidate from the district of Kurunegala in the north-western part of the country after ditching his home constituency of Hambantota in the deep south of the island, which has a smaller electorate.

Since his defeat in January, there has been an outpouring of corruption allegations against Rajapaksa’s inner circle, including close relatives. His wife and two of his brothers are all facing corruption and embezzlement charges.

One of his sons has also been implicated in the alleged murder of a former rugby star.

Rajapaksa has ventured out of his southern power base and into Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heartland in his bid to regain power in Monday’s parliamentary election, eight months after crashing to defeat in a presidential vote.

A 27-metre statue of Buddha gazes from atop Elephant Rock over the provincial city of Kurunegala where the 69-year-old strongman is running, a reminder of his appeal to Sinhala-speaking Buddhists who make up more than seven in 10 voters nationwide.

The capital of Sri Lanka’s Northwestern Province also has a concentration of army personnel, veterans and widows of the 26-year civil war. They are natural supporters of Rajapaksa, who crushed ethnic minority Tamil rebels in 2009 and styles himself as a national saviour.

Pundits say Wickremesinghe, a protege of President Maithripala Sirisena, would have the edge in a head-to-head contest for the premiership that Rajapaksa covets to re-launch his career and, opponents say, stay out of legal trouble.

Minority Tamils and Muslims are broadly sympathetic to the ruling coalition, while Rajapaksa only enjoys a slight lead among Sinhala voters, according to one survey.

Agencies

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