Leader of Opposition and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Sunday named his brother and controversial figure Gotabaya Rajapaksa as presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Front.
Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa also officially took charge as leader of the less-than-four-year-old party, that his loyalists founded in 2016, breaking away from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP.
Presidential elections are due before the end of the year and the incumbent United National Party (UNP is yet to announce its candidate, amid apparent disagreements between its leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the party’s deputy leader Sajith Premadasa. President Maithripala Sirisena who leads the SLFP-remnant is likely to support Mr. Rajapaksa, according to political sources.
Making the announcement at Sugathadasa stadium that was packed with Rajapaksa supporters, the former President said: “I am not the one choosing him. You have already chosen him. The country has asked for him.” Mr. Rajapaksa, who held office for a decade from 2005, cannot run for Presidency due to a 2015 legislation that places a two-term limit. However, in a recent media interview, he has said he would be the party’s prime ministerial candidate in the general elections scheduled next year.
Mr. Gotabaya, 70, rose to prominence during Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, when he was appointed defence secretary. While supporters hail him as a “hero”, for his crucial role in ending the war that the armed forces fought with the rebel Tigers critics and victims, especially among the Tamil minority, call him a “war criminal” and fiercely resist him. He is linked to Sri Lanka’s infamous “white-van abductions” targeting dissidents. In the post-war years, he was accused of backing reactionary Sinhala Buddhist groups notorious for inciting violence against minority Muslims. Even as he faces trial for financial fraud and murder, Mr.Gotabaya has denied all allegations and maintained that they are politically motivated falsehoods.
Addressing supporters on Sunday, Mr. Gotabaya recalled the praise he received from a senior military colleague who called him ‘an officer who takes initiative over and above the normal call of duty’. “It was that quality that helped me 30 years of terrorism, in just three and a half years,” he said. Further he vowed he “will never allow extremist terrorism” in the country and pledged to enhance national security, apparently speaking to apprehensions over the April Easter terror attacks that gripped the country. He would safeguard the country’s sovereignty and protect it from “external forces’ interference,” he said.
One of the early reactions from the Rajapaksas’ political rivals came from Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera Sunday evening. “The barbarians are at the gate!” he tweeted, adding: “The symbol of white van terror of the Rajapakse era, the ‘ugly American’, has today launched his campaign for the presidency. Do #SriLankans want to return to the isolation and darkness of the past? #lka
Meanwhile, Mr. Gotabaya’s candidacy is also being challenged by sections that have questions about his citizenship. A dual citizen of Sri Lanka and the United States, Mr. Gotabaya has said that he has renounced his American citizenship, as Sri Lankan law prohibits dual citizens form contesting for the highest office. However, the State-run Sunday Observer on Sunday reported that a couple of police complaints made by civil society activists on alleged irregularities in his Sri Lankan citizenship, passports and electoral registration could potential pose a threat to his candidacy.