Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa faces poll battle as war effect wanes
Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa faces poll battle as war effect wanes
South Asia's longest-serving leader had appeared politically invincible after his forces crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009, ending a decades-long conflict and ushering in a new era of prosperity for the island nation.
Rajapaksa won a landslide election victory in 2010, but critics say the 69-year-old has failed to bring about reconciliation with Sri Lanka's Tamil minority in the years that followed.
His second term has been dogged by accusations of corruption, including undermining the independence of the judiciary and lining the pockets of political cronies through lucrative contracts.
The surprise decision of his health minister Maithripala Sirisena to defect from the ruling party and stand as the main opposition candidate has turned what might have been a walk-over into a real contest.
Political commentator Victor Ivan said the low-profile Sirisena had become a symbol of simmering discontent over corruption.
"He (Rajapaksa) failed to ensure reconciliation," Ivan said.
"His focus was in mega-highways and ports. That was good for GDP growth, but not enough to heal a society wounded by decades of conflict."
Sri Lanka's economy has grown by an annual average of over seven percent since the war ended, partly thanks to hefty investment from close Rajapakse ally China.
But the opposition says Chinese contractors have employed few local people, and household incomes have not kept pace with national growth rates.
Opposition parties including the main Tamil party have rallied behind Sirisena, a 63-year-old farmer-turned-politician who is from the majority Sinhalese community.
While he still has support among Sinhalese voters, Rajapakse is widely detested by members of the country's biggest minority, who account for 13 percent of its 15 million people and usually vote as a bloc.
The president has taken drastic measures to shore up support, slashing fuel prices, cutting water and electricity tariffs and giving subsidised motorcycles and hefty pay increases to 1.6 million public servants.
Rajapakse has also promised a judicial inquiry into allegations that his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war, although he still refuses to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation.
Last week he told voters in the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna that he was committed to improving their livelihoods, listing a series of infrastructure projects in the war-ravaged region.
Describing himself as the "known devil", the president urged people not to vote for the "unknown" Sirisena. "I am the known devil, so please vote for me," he said through a translator.
The Tamils could be king-makers if the majority Sinhalese constituency is split down the middle between Rajapakse and Sirisena.
"We will vote for Sirisena not because we like him, but because we don't like the president," said Colombo-based Tamil company executive Ratnavale Chandrasekaran.
Rajapakse called snap elections two years ahead of schedule in the hope of preempting an opposition fight-back.
Close associates say the timing was decided partly on advice given by his personal astrologer.
The 69-year-old, who has been accused of growing authoritarianism, had removed the two-term limit on the presidency and given himself more powers soon after winning a second term in 2010.
Sirisena's defection was carefully choreographed by Rajapakse's bete noire, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who returned to politics after a nine-year retirement, and has split the ruling party.
A hardline party of Sinhalese Buddhist monks that had cheered Rajapakse's refusal to bow to an international probe defected to the opposition in November, accusing him of unprecedented corruption and nepotism.
The president's eldest brother Chamal is speaker of parliament, another brother Basil is economic development minister while a third, Gotabhaya, serves as the defence secretary.
Other family members dominate state institutions and government-owned companies, with the Rajapakse tentacles extending even to sporting bodies.
Rajapakse himself holds a host of ministerial portfolios including finance, ports and highways.
The pro-government media are predicting a close fight, while diplomats in Colombo say they sense a shift in favour of the opposition.
Last week one of Sirisena's top supporters accused the government of deploying thousands of troops to Tamil-majority areas as part of a strategy to intimidate voters against backing Rajapakse's main challenger.
The military has denied accusations of campaigning for Rajapakse.
As signs of opposition strength grew, the privately-run Sunday Times newspaper questioned the wisdom of Rajapakse's decision to call a snap election.
"It was his own calling," the paper said. "President Mahinda Rajapakse for once goes as the underdog."
Westminster terror suspect in court over UK parliament ‘attack’
- Sudanese-born British national Salih Khater is accused of driving into a group of cyclists and then police officers - charged with attempted murder
- He appeared at Westminster Magistrates Court in London on Monday
LONDON: A terror suspect accused of crashing his car into the security barriers surrounding Britain’s Houses of Parliament appeared in court Monday charged with attempted murder.
Sudanese-born British national Salih Khater is accused of driving into a group of cyclists and then police officers last Tuesday.
He appeared at Westminster Magistrates Court in London on Monday where judge Emma Arbuthnot, England’s chief magistrate, remanded him in custody following a seven-minute hearing.
The 29-year-old is charged with two counts of attempted murder of members of the public and of police officers. He did not enter a plea on Monday.
Khater will next appear for another short hearing at the Old Bailey in London, England’s central criminal court, on August 31.
Wearing a grey t-shirt and white trousers, Khater confirmed his name, date of birth, nationality and home address in Birmingham, central England.
Prosecutor Samuel Main alleged that Khater “accelerated into a group of cyclists,” then, having driven through them, “veered off the open road, down a chute and toward police officers” guarding the parliament building.
The incident followed a “short but intensive period of reconnaissance,” he alleged.
Main said detectives had made extensive enquiries and had come up with “no evidence” of an accident, mechanical failure, a medical episode or disorder, intention to commit suicide or a crisis in Khater’s personal circumstances.
The prosecutor alleged it was a “deliberately calculated attack.”
Main said the choice of location and the attempt to kill police officers suggested “that the defendant intended to make a political statement.”
Prosecutors were therefore treating the case “as terrorism,” Main told Arbuthnot.
The location was close to that of another attack in March last year when Khalid Masood, a 52-year-old Briton, mowed down pedestrians, killing five people before fatally stabbing a police officer.