COLOMBO (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s Maithripala Sirisena was a low-profile minister when a rudderless opposition chose him to spearhead a campaign to topple the president, but he has become a symbol of discontent over government corruption.
Mahinda Rajapakse had looked set for victory until Sirisena walked out of his government a day after sharing dinner with the strongman president.
But the 63-year-old farmer-turned-politician has become a rallying point for disaffected Sri Lankans since emerging as challenger to South Asia’s longest-serving leader.
He rejected the president’s accusation of backstabbing, promising to "end the Rajapakse family rule".
"What I promise is a political and social transformation," Sirisena said at his final election rally in Colombo on Monday.
Dressed in the white sarong and tunic favoured by Sri Lankan politicians, Sirisena appeals to a rural electorate while his main backer, the centre-right United National Party (UNP), is more popular in urban areas.
He has pledged to abolish the executive presidency within 100 days and return the country to a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy where the police, the judiciary, and the civil service will be independent institutions.
Rajapakse had removed the two-term limit on the presidency and given himself more powers soon after winning a second term in 2010, in what critics say were signs of growing authoritarianism.
The government accuses Sirisena of being a proxy of former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who came out of retirement to boost his electoral fortunes by asking her loyalists to vote for him.
He says he will make UNP leader and former premier Ranil Wickremesinghe his prime minister if he wins, and together they pose a a serious threat to Rajapakse.
– Jail fears –
If he fails to oust the president, however, Sirisena believes he could end up in jail.
Former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who mounted a failed bid to challenge Rajapakse in 2010, was jailed for over two and a half years on controversial charges and through an even more contentious legal process.
"I know what happened to General Fonseka can happen to me too," Sirisena repeated at the start of campaign rallies six weeks ago.
It is not his first courageous political move.
The son of a World War II veteran, Sirisena entering parliament in 1989 after settling in the eastern district of Polonnaruwa, where he had worked as a local government official.
At the time his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was struggling to find candidates willing to risk attacks by Marxist Sinhalese militants who wanted an elections boycott.
Sirisena was also a soft target for the Tamil Tiger rebels during the height of fighting and says the separatists may have tried to assassinate him on at least five occasions.
He was jailed for nearly two years after being arrested on suspicion of leading a revolt against the government in 1971 when he was just 20.
After his defection from the government Rajapakse kicked Sirisena out of the SLFP, although he insists he is still a member.
But his vision for the country ties in closely with the free-market, investor-friendly policies of the opposition UNP which provided him with the political base to challenge Rajapakse.