Controversial former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa declaring his intention to run for president this year has created sharp divisions within the opposition led by his elder brother Mahinda.
Gotabaya’s public pronouncements this week were not taken lying down by his other politically-ambitious brothers, particularly former speaker Chamal who immediately responded saying he will was also be a contender.
Party loyalists noted that President Maithripala Sirisena was most concerned about a Gotabaya entry into the fray as he had hoped to seek re-election with the support of the powerful Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP.
President Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and went as far as to dissolve parliament following tacit agreement with Mahinda Rajapaksa to get his support in return at the 2019 presidential polls.
Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) general secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara, said the President was the SLFP candidate and that they had no intention of backing a common candidate.
“President Maithripala Sirisena is the candidate as far as we are concerned,” Jayasekara told reporters on Friday. “Unless otherwise decided by the President, he will be the candidate.”
Another SLFP stalwart, S. B. Dissanayake cautioned opposition politicians against speculating on a candidate. “It is best to keep quiet,” Dissanayake said when asked about Gotabaya’s entry.
Although Gotabaya directly suggested entering presidential elections only last week, he had launched his unofficial campaign in May last year at the Colombo Shangri La hotel.
Several social media fronts of Gotabaya issued campaign slogans and memes this week launching “2020 Gota” ahead of his first trial before the special High Court in Colombo from Tuesday.
The first full-blown trial against Gotabaya starts at the High Court from Tuesday over allegations that he misappropriated over 40 million rupees in state funds to build a mausoleum for his late parents at Weeraketiya.
Gotabaya is still not qualified to become a candidate at Sri Lankan elections because he is yet to renounce his US citizenship. He has previously said it could be done within two months, but this week he told reporters that giving up the foreign nationality was a personal matter.
He argued that Washington could not block him giving up the US citizenship and referred to the United States as the “father of democracy.” “A person cannot be tied to US citizenship,” he added.
However, diplomatic sources said there was a time consuming process to renounce US citizenship and that can be done only if there was no outstanding taxes and litigation against the person trying to renounce US nationality.