Sri Lanka's former president Rajapakse issues challenge to current president

Former Sri Lankan president and parliamentary candidate Mahinda Rajapakse speaks during the launch of the election manifesto in Colombo on July 28, 2015. PHOTO: AFP
Former Sri Lankan president and parliamentary candidate Mahinda Rajapakse speaks during the launch of the election manifesto in Colombo on July 28, 2015. PHOTO: AFPPHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (AFP) - Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse openly challenged his successor on Friday, demanding he respect the "will of the people", after the country's new leader vetoed his ambitions to become prime minister.

In a tersely written letter, Mr Rajapakse rejected President Maithripala Sirisena's accusations against him as "baseless" and hinted he should head the government if his party won the vote.

The two men belong to the same party and were allies until late last year, when Mr Sirisena quit as health minister to stand against the veteran strongman in the January 8 presidential election.

On Thursday, Mr Sirisena accused Mr Rajapakse of fuelling communal hatred on the island and said he would choose one of seven senior members of their United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) as prime minister should it win Monday's general election.

"Even if I have to intervene to form a coalition, you will not be the prime minister," Mr Sirisena said in a five-page letter to Mr Rajapakse.

Mr Rajapakse lambasted the president over the claims.

"The allegations you have made against me are baseless. You have relied on outsiders to form these accusations," said Mr Rajapakse.

"I wholeheartedly reject them."

But Rajapakse loyalists said the letter could damage their chances with just hours to go until campaigning ends, and appealed to the independent elections commissioner to bar the media from reporting it.

The UPFA is seen as unlikely to prevail in the vote.

Many observers were stunned by Mr Sirisena's victory over Mr Rajapakse, who had been in power for nearly a decade and oversaw the crushing of the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in 2009.

Although Mr Rajapakse is reviled by large sectors of the minority Tamil community, he retains widespread support among ethnic Sinhalese voters and his rallies have drawn big crowds.

Mr Rajapakse is standing as a candidate from the district of Kurunegala in the north-western part of the country after ditching his home constituency of Hambantota in the deep south of the island, which has a smaller electorate.

Since his defeat in January, there has been an outpouring of corruption allegations against Mr Rajapakse's inner circle, including close relatives. His wife and two of his brothers are all facing corruption and embezzlement charges.

One of his sons has also been implicated in the alleged murder of a former rugby star.