Sri Lanka's Rajapakse to lead faction at upcoming poll

Sri Lanka's former president Mahinda Rajapakse announced Wednesday he would lead an opposition faction at the upcoming general election, months after defeat in a presidential poll ended his decade in power. Rajapakse, an autocratic ruler accused of siphoning off millions during his tenure, said he would spearhead a faction at parliamentary elections in August. But he stopped short of saying whether he would contest a seat himself, after his hopes of standing as a prime ministerial candidate were blocked by his successor as president. "I have no right to refuse the people's call," Rajapakse said at his home in Medamulana village in his southern stronghold of Hambantota where pictures of the former president with "I am ready" were posted. "Therefore we must contest the upcoming general election," he told supporters, flanked by a handful of his former ministers. Rajapakse appealed to "patriots" in all political parties to form a new unity government, six months after his defeat by current President Maithripala Sirisena. Rajapakse had earlier told close aides that he wanted to run as a prime ministerial candidate in the August 17 poll and he was preparing to make that announcement on Wednesday. But Sirisena made clear in a statement on Tuesday night that he would refuse Rajapakse's request to be the candidate for the main opposition United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Sirisena challenged Rajapakse in January after breaking away from their UPFA, but the new president has returned to the party since his victory and taken over its leadership. Without the backing of the UPFA, former strongman Rajapakse appears unlikely to cobble together any strong challenge to the major United National Party, which backed Sirisena in the January poll. Sirisena, who served in Rajapakse's cabinet before quitting to stand against his one-time mentor, won on a pledge of ethnic reconciliation and sweeping reforms including rolling back the president's powers. He called a general election last month to strengthen his numbers in parliament, where his promised reforms faced resistance from lawmakers loyal to Rajapakse. Rajapakse, an ethnic Sinhalese, remains popular among big sections of the island's largest community for overseeing the defeat of the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in 2009. He was however shunned by many world leaders after refusing to probe claims that tens of thousands of civilians died in the final months of the 37-year conflict.