Lanka candidate vows to scrap presidential system

Saturday 06th December 2014 06:09 EST
Maithripala Sirisena

Former Sri Lankan health minister Maithripala Sirisena on Monday signed an agreement with opposition parties, trade unions and professional groups to scrap the country's powerful presidential system and carry out other democratic reforms if he beats incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa and wins January's presidential election.

Maithripala Sirisena led a revolt in Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Freedom Party last month and announced he will run in the Jan. 8 election, with the backing of the country's main opposition United National Party. He is also being supported by groups of lawyers, university teachers and other professionals.

Sirisena pledged to scrap the presidency, call a parliamentary election and install an all-party national government led by a prime minister for at least two years. He promised to make the police, judiciary and government bureaucracy independent from political interference within 100 days of being elected.

Sirisena has accused Rajapaksa of nepotism, corruption and turning the country into an autocracy. Eight other ministers and lawmakers have defected from the government to support Sirisena.

Sirisena's defection is the most serious threat to Rajapaksa's presidency since he took office in 2005. He won re-election in 2010 riding a wave of support for leading a military campaign to defeat the Tamil Tiger rebels, who had waged a 25-year civil war to try to carve out an independent state for the ethnic minority Tamils.

But since that election, some of Rajapaksa's actions have cut into his support base among the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community, who comprise 70 percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people.

The moves include Rajapaksa jailing his main rival, the former army chief who led the military campaign against the rebels and claimed credit for the victory. Rajapaksa also used his strength in Parliament to eliminate a two-term limit for the presidency, and bring the judiciary, police and elections commission under his control.

He used Parliament to impeach the country's chief justice and replace her with his own aide.

His ministers have accused him of concentrating power and money within his family. One Rajapaksa brother is a powerful Cabinet minister, a second is the speaker of Parliament and a third the powerful defense secretary, who controls the country's armed forces and police.

Rajapaksa's older son and a niece are also lawmakers, and there are many relatives holding bureaucratic and diplomatic positions.

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