COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka's main opposition candidate on Sunday won important backing from a top Buddhist monk campaigning to scrap the executive presidency and return the country to a parliamentary democracy.
Agriculture minister Maithripala Sirisena, who defected on Friday to challenge his former boss President Mahinda Rajapakse in the January 8 election, visited monk Maduliwawe Sobitha to receive his blessings.
"I applaud your courage to enter the fray only to scrap the presidency and bring back parliamentary democracy, ensure rule of law and end corruption," Sobitha said while blessing Sirisena in front of reporters and TV cameras at his temple.
The monk is a key figure campaigning for political reforms in the majority Buddhist nation of 20 million. He had been the spiritual guide of former president Chandrika Kumaratunga who is also backing the 63-year-old Sirisena for the presidency.
The monk expressed regret that Rajapakse had failed to deliver on promises to abolish the 1978 constitution, which gave strong powers to the executive including immunity from prosecution.
Sirisena told reporters he would launch his campaign after visiting two more Buddhist shrines in the central and the north-central region of the island on Monday.
"We will not engage in violence, character assassination or any such thing," Sirisena said. "We hope the campaign will be peaceful."
Almost all previous elections in the country have been marred by assassinations, bomb attacks and widespread campaign-related violence.
The authorities have already removed the elite police commando unit which protected Sirisena while bodyguards of three other defecting ministers have also been withdrawn.
Rajapakse's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has also suspended five members who pledged support to Sirisena.
Sources close to the president said at least another dozen SLFP legislators have been identified as trying to defect but they would not be suspended as yet.
Rajapakse called the election two years ahead of schedule in an apparent attempt to seek a fresh mandate before his party's popularity tumbles further, after dropping over 21 percent in September local elections.
While Rajapakse remains popular with voters from the Sinhalese majority after he won a 37-year war against Tamil separatists in 2009, critics say he has become increasingly authoritarian.
A key coalition partner, the JHU, or party of Buddhist monks, walked out of the government on Tuesday, accusing Rajapakse of failing to deliver promised democratic reforms.
Rajapakse is also struggling to avoid international censure over claims his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians in the bloody finale of the fighting, an issue that has overshadowed his ongoing chairmanship of the Commonwealth.