Former Sri Lanka leader Mahinda Rajapaksa to run for prime minister in August elections

Mahinda Rajapaksa

A coalition led by Sri Lanka’s president has nominated war-time leader Mahinda Rajapaksa to run in elections next month, official documents showed on Monday, with allies saying he will stand for the post of prime minister.

President Maithripala Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa in a bitterly fought election in January. He was forced to give the former leader the nomination in the face of strong demands from his party or risk a split.

Rajapaksa’s crushing of a 26-year Tamil Tiger insurgency in 2009 won him support among the island nation’s Sinhalese majority, and he still has a strong following. He becomes Sri Lanka’s first defeated leader to seek a legislative seat.

“Today, people wants a change. I’m leading the campaign with President Sirisena as the chairman of the party to form a Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led governrnment,” Mahinda Rajapaksa told Reuters by phone after handing over the nomination doecuments.

Rajapaksa will stand in the country’s third-largest electoral district, Kurunagala, where most voters have relatives in the military. The elections are set for Aug 17.

Rajapaksa’s allies say if elected, he would immediately resume Chinese projects suspended by the Sirisena government.

Sirisena is re-examining certain projects in which China has invested, including a $1.4-billion port city in the capital, Colombo. China has already built a seaport and airport in Sri Lanka’s south, raising fears it is seeking influence in a country where neighbouring India has deep ties.

If his bid is successful, Rajapaksa will have more powers than any of his predecessors, after Sirisena enhanced some of the powers of the post with reforms in April. Sirisena will still have the power of a veto.

Sirisena, a former minister in Rajapaksa’s administration, defected last year to run for president, promising fresh elections in 2015. The parliamentary election comes after months of deadlock in the legislature, as a six-month-old coalition government cobbled together by Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe has struggled to pass key political reforms.

Wickremesinghe leads the centre-right United National Party (UNP), Sirisena the rival centre-left SLFP. Rajapaksa will run as part of an SLFP-led coalition, also headed by Sirisena.

Rajapaksa and his regime still face a United Nations war crimes investigation. A report on alleged rights abuses in the final phase of the war is due in September.