Mahinda Rajapaksa seeks political comeback as Sri Lanka goes to polls

Colombo: Sri Lankans will vote in a crucial general election on Monday after a tense poll campaign with former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa eyeing a political comeback as prime minister months after being toppled as president by Maithripala Sirisena, who has vowed not to make him premier.

The election to the 225-seat national Parliament promises a close battle between the United National Party (UNP) of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) of President Sirisena.

Over 15 million voters are eligible to vote in the election to be held under electoral districts-based proportional representation system. 196 members will be elected from districts while 29 will be appointed based on the national proportion of votes polled by each party. To have a working majority government, 113 seats are needed in the National Assembly.

 Mahinda Rajapaksa seeks political comeback as Sri Lanka goes to polls

File photo of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Reuters

The rivalry between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena is limited to party positions they hold as the former's support helped the latter become president in January by defeating Rajapaksa.

However the real challenge to the UNP comes from former president and Sinhala strongman Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa, 69, forced himself into the UPFA reckoning to contest the parliamentary poll, an action unprecedented for a former president of the country.

Sirisena was not in favour of granting Rajapaksa a party ticket but his party allies have defied his wishes.

"Not only you held two terms, you deprived the party seniors opportunities by trying to stay on forever," Sirisena alleged in a letter to Rajapaksa last week.

Sirisena said he had to consent to allowing Rajapaksa to contest the 17 August election as there was a threat that the party would be split if he was not given a party ticket.

Accusing Rajapaksa of alienating Tamil and Muslim minorities from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Sirisena asked his predecessor not to create divisions in the party.

Sirisena was Rajapaksa's health minister until he came forward as the opposition unity candidate to challenge the then president last year.

He faced immediate sacking from the party only to be handed the party leadership when he defeated Rajapaksa in the January presidential election.

"I will start from where I left off in January," said Rajapaksa who runs from the Sinhala Buddhist-majority rural Kurunegala district in the northwest having shifted from his home base in the deep south.

The ex-president charged the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government of stalling many infrastructure projects which he undertook with Chinese assistance.

A hero to many Sinhalese for ending the LTTE's over three-decade separatist civil war on behalf of the Tamil minority, Rajapaksa has expressed fears that the current government's soft policy on the Tamil diaspora in the West may lead to revival of the ethnic conflict that killed nearly 100,000 people.

He has appealed to the Sinhalese to restore him to power as the UPFA's prime ministerial candidate.

Wickremesinghe wants to continue with democratic reforms the government had introduced since Rajapaksa's defeat, restoring civil and democratic freedoms, good governance and growth through enhanced investment.

The prime minister paints a secular policy with getting on board all minorities who had felt hard done by Rajapaksa's hawkish rule since the civil war ended in 2009.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have both pledged a government of national unity which would mean Sirisena would add his partymen to complete the 113 figure if the UNP fell short of achieving the numbers.

"We will win 117 seats on our own. We will not have a national government," Rajapaksa said at a poll rally.

Poll monitoring groups have already dubbed it as the fairest election campaign in the island in recent times with a minimum number of election law violations.

Police chief N K Ilangakoon said that 63,000 policemen will be on duty at poll stations throughout with several thousands more on mobile patrols.

Campaigning since July 13 has witnessed at least 4 deaths. The police however have yet to verify the shooting incidents as politically motivated.

"We can be very happy with the comparative peaceful campaign. The parties have been by and large cooperating with the Commissioner of Elections in adhering to the laws," Rohana Hettiarachchi of the People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) said.

Campaigning ended on Friday and since then there have been few complaints of acts of violations by candidates and parties, Keerthi Tennakoon of the Campaign for Free and Fair Election (CAFFE) said.

PTI

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Updated Date: Aug 17, 2015 08:24:02 IST