Sirisena gaining ground in race against Rajapaksa for Sri Lakan presidency

Over a dinner of rice-flour pancakes with his trusted health minister one evening in November, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa observed with a grin that there would be no serious candidate to challenge him in the presidential election.
Little did Rajapaksa know then that the man who would stand in his way of winning an unprecedented third term as president of this Indian Ocean island nation was right there beside him.

"When he said that nobody was going to challenge him, I was next to him and felt sorry for him," Maithripala Sirisena later told a campaign meeting about his decision to turn on the president and to run as the opposition's common candidate in tomorrow's poll.
"I came out because I could not stay anymore with a leader who had plundered the country, government and national wealth."
Branded a traitor by Rajapaksa's close allies, Sirisena has forged many political alliances and now appears to be within striking distance of unseating a president who, just weeks ago, had looked unassailable.
Since Sirisena's defection, 25 Rajapaksa loyalists in the 225-seat parliament have followed, unleashing a wave of disgust with a leader whose once-extraordinary popularity has withered amid complaints of autocracy, corruption and nepotism.
Victory for Sirisena would put a full stop on a reign that brought brisk economic growth following the end of a 26-year conflict with Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009, deepening ties with China and souring relations with Western nations over allegations of war crimes and rights abuses.
Sirisena has vowed to scrap a US$1.5 billion deal with China Communications Construction Co to build a port city and a casino licence that was given to Australian gambling tycoon James Packer's Crown Resorts.
The 63-year-old leader from the rural heartlands projects himself as a champion of the farming masses, a clean-living figure who has campaigned against smoking and abjures alcohol. There is no credible and unbiased opinion poll on the election outcome.
Sirisena still represents the country's Sinhalese Buddhist majority, who account for 70 percent of its 21 million population, and he was acting defence minister when the war against the Tamil Tigers reached its bloody climax in 2009.
However, he also has promised a new broom that has appealed to ethnic Tamils, Muslims and Christians in a country where minorities have felt increasingly marginalised.
After joining mainstream politics, Sirisena was offered the post of prime minister by Rajapaksa's predecessor but he declined it.
Few would have believed that Sirisena would now be so close to toppling a president who had basked in popularity after winning the war and skilfully kept his opponents at bay.

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