COLOMBO: The contest to replace Maithripala Sirisena as Sri Lankan president intensified with the two main contenders -- ruling UNP leader Sajith Premadasa and former defence chief Gotabhaya Rajapaksa -- launching their election campaign, both promising strong national security measures if they win.
While Premadasa, United National Party deputy leader, kicked off his campaign here on Thursday, Rajapaksa, the younger brother of former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, launched his election rally the previous day in the north central town of Anuradhapura.
Both the candidates made the national security issue a key election plank. In his rally, Premadasa said he would give "utmost priority" to national security and "eliminate all forms of terrorism" if voted to power.
"I will ensure that everyone lived happily in a safe country," he said. Premadasa, who is also the housing minister, said he would entrust the national security to Sarath Fonseka, who was the Army Commander in 2009 when it defeated the LTTE.
"The Field Marshal is an expert on the issue and I would always give due recognition to experts under my government," he said.
President Sirisena was under pressure to appoint Fonseka as the minister-in-charge of the police after the deadly Easter Sunday attacks by the Islamist extremists that killed 258 people.
However, he ignored the calls due to his differences with the ruling UNP. Fonseka is considered the main architect of the military operation, which ended the nearly three-decade-long civil war in the island nation with the death of LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2009.
Fonseka was awarded the country's only field marshal rank for his role. Premadasa's main rival Rajapaksa served as the defence secretary during the civil war. Both Rajapaksa and Fonseka are considered war heroes by many ethnic majority Sinhalese.
After the war ended, Fonseka was sidelined and fell apart with Rajapaksa. Their animosity increased after Fonseka retired from service and unsuccessfully contested Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2010 presidential election.
Soon after his defeat, Fonseka was arrested and court-martialed for alleged corruption in military purchases when he was the commander.
Fonseka is currently a governing party lawmaker. Meanwhile, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is contesting on Sri Lanka People's Party (SLPP) ticket, in his election campaign blamed the incumbent government for neglecting national security and causing a stagnation of the economy.
He accused the government of ignoring intelligence warnings and turning a blind eye to rising Muslim extremism.
"They have failed to protect the people, they did not treat the issue of national security seriously," Rajapaksa stressed, adding that his track record would ensure that national security would be given top priority in his administration if voted to power.
"Under Mahinda Rajapaksa's government, we created a safer country. We created an environment in which people could take a journey without fear of bomb attacks. But this government has changed that situation," he told thousands of supporters of the SLPP, which is led by his brother Mahinda.
"If you fulfil your responsibility on November 16, I promise to ensure a safer country," Rajapaksa said.
Coincidentally, Rajapaksa kicked off his campaign on the day a Lanka court ordered the re-remanding of the then police chief Pujith Jayasundera and former defence secretary Hemasiri Fernando for criminal negligence on failure to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings carried out by local Jihadi group National Thowheeth Jamaath.
As many as 35 candidates are in the fray for the presidential polls to be held on November 16. Over 15 million people are eligible to vote.