COLOMBO, SRI LANKA: Sri Lanka’s President will stay neutral in the upcoming presidential election but his party will back a breakaway party candidate, front-runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa, officials said on Wednesday.
Sri Lanka Freedom Party general secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara said President Maithripala Sirisena has temporarily stepped aside from leading the party to ensure his neutrality. He said the decision was made because questions could arise about the impartiality of police, which Sirisena oversees.
The move is seen as an attempt by the ramshackle party to stay relevant after losing a majority of its loyalists to the breakaway Sri Lanka People’s Front, which Rajapaksa is using to contest the election.
It is the first time that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the country’s second-largest for more than six decades, has not fielded a candidate in a major national election.
Party vice president Mahinda Samarasinghe told reporters that the decision to support Rajapaksa, a former defence chief, was made with the backdrop of a volatile security situation following Easter Sunday bomb attacks that killed more than 260 people.
“He is a proven administrator,” Samarasinghe said.
Rajapaksa, who served under his brother, former strongman President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is popular among majority Sinhalese for his part in ending a long civil war against ethnic minority Tamil rebels a decade ago. He has been accused of condoning rights abuses.
The decision by Sirisena’s party came after he decided not to seek reelection, apparently finding it difficult to beat Rajapaksa.
A record 35 candidates filed nominations on Monday for the November 16 election, with Rajapaksa considered the favorite.
The April 21 suicide attacks by seven Muslim terrorists also boosted Rajapaksa’s fortunes, with many people praising his wartime role against the secessionist rebels. Sri Lankan leaders and the security establishment have been under fire for not acting on near-specific intelligence reports of possible attacks ahead of the bombings.
Sirisena has said he was kept in the dark about the reports and appointed a presidential commission to investigate the lapses.
National police chief Pujith Jayasundara was suspended and former defence secretary Hemasiri Fernando resigned. Both were later arrested after the presidential commission found grounds to charge them with dereliction of duty and criminal negligence. They were released on bail but on Wednesday a higher court canceled the bail and ordered them held in detention.