B. Muralidhar Reddy

COLOMBO: Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Thursday said he saw no challenge from a common candidate in the calibre of a retired military man or the former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the presidential election scheduled to be held in January, 2010.

Talking to the media here, Mr. Rajapaksa said retired military personnel would not be candidates in uniforms and pointing to the Defence Secretary who was present, said: “See, the Defence Secretary is retired and now dressed in civilian clothes.”

Mr. Rajapaksa’s remarks came hours before the main opposition United National Party (UNP)’s working committee and splinter group of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Mangala Samaraweera backed General (retired) Sarath Fonseka as their common presidential candidate. UNP is the main constituent of the newly formed 18-party United National Front (UNF).

Mr. Wickremesinghe, leader of the UNP and UNF, announced the decision of his party to support the former Army chief. “UNP has reached a consensus with General Fonseka that the Constitutional Council would be appointed once he is elected President. All unnecessary laws that stifle civil liberties would be repealed,” he told a news conference.

However, General (retired) Fonseka is yet to go public on his future plans and is scheduled to hold a media conference on Sunday.

The delay in a formal announcement by the General is attributed to ongoing consultations with leaders of Tamil and Muslim parties that are divided on an approach to the crucial poll.

Democratic Peoples Front (DPF) leader Mano Ganeshan, speaking to The Hindu after a meeting of his party, said: “Our decision is to work for the defeat of Mr. Rajapaksa. We would choose from one of the two options of either backing General (retired) Fonseka or fielding a common Tamil candidate by next Thursday.”

Positive campaign

In his interaction with the media President Rajapaksa said the need of the hour was to engage in a positive campaign devoid of insult and mud-slinging among contestants. “I respect the right of the people to call for elections and that was why I sacrifice two years of my first term heeding to the voice of the people.”

Mr. Rajapaksa said that in 2005 the opposition created a notion that he won sans the northern vote. “I decided that the right of voters in both the North and [the] East is a must to decide on the presidency and now they can choose their leader”.

Asked about the abolition of the executive presidency, Mr. Rajapaksa agreed that the parliamentary system must be strengthened in the future.