COLOMBO: The Sri Lanka Freedom Party headed by President Maithripala Sirisena will back main opposition challenger Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in the key presidential elections to be held next month, a senior party official said on Wednesday.
The announcement came days after Sirisena ruled out contesting the November 16 polls for a second term as he failed to make a deposit by a Sunday deadline, making him ineligible to file a nomination.
"We will support Gotabhaya in the election", Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) general secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera told reporters.
The decision came after the SLFP failed to reach an agreement with Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party to contest the election under a common symbol.
"Since there is no room now to change the symbol we will enter an agreement with Gotabhaya, we will support him but not SLPP", Jayasekera said.
Rajapaksa, who served as defence chief under his brother and former strongman President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is popular for ending the government's nearly-three-decade long civil war against ethnic minority Tamil rebels.
He is considered a hero among ethnic majority Sinhalese for his role in defeating the LTTE rebels.
Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa has been appointed acting Chairman of the SLFP. Sirisena defeated Mahinda in the last presidential election held in 2015.
He was sacked from the party in 2015 when he challenged him and was later handed the party leadership after he won the presidency with the backing of the then main opposition United National Party (UNP) of the current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
This was the beginning of the internal rifts within the new government which pledged a series of democratic reforms including a new Constitution.
Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister in a constitutional standoff and brought back Mahinda to replace him. The Supreme Court ruled the move was unconstitutional.
Although Wickremesinghe was reinstated by Sirisena, there was no harmony between the two.
Wickremesinghe was forced to name his deputy Sajith Premadasa to be the party's nominee for the election.
The November 16 election, therefore, will become the first presidential election in Sri Lanka when the sitting President, Prime Minister and the main opposition leader are not the contestants.