Tens of thousands of supporters of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa have staged a rally in Colombo, urging him to return to politics a month after he was defeated by his one-time ally Maithripala Sirisena.
In a message read out at the rally, Rajapaksa said he was unable to ignore his supporters’ wishes and may stand for prime minister later this year.
“I say firmly that I am in anyway unable to ignore the wishes of those of you who think about the country and are committed for the country,” he said.
We all know it is only the minorities and the Western powers that support the current regime.
“Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election but he is still the best leader this country can hope to have,” Sarath Paranavithana, a local shopowner, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
“If we cannot have him as our president then we must strive to make him our prime minister.”
Paranavithana said that he was “confident Rajapaksa would hear our pleas and return to the political forefront”.
His supporters say Rajapaksa, who ended a decades-long civil war during his nine-year rule, must return because the new government has endangered the country’s unity by being lenient toward ethnic minority Tamils.
Sirisena appointed a civilian as the governor of Northern Province and lifted travel restrictions to the former war zone in a bid to boost reconciliation between the Tamil minority and the majority Sinhalese.
Dileep Abeysekara, dressed in a Rajapaksa T-shirt, told Al Jazeera that the presidential election was not a true expression of the will of the people.
“The minorities voted for Maithripala Sirisena, but the Sinhalese voted for Rajapaksa,” he said.
“We all know it is only the minorities and the Western powers that support the current regime. This show of support will energise the people and Rajapaksa will return to power soon.”
Organisers claimed more than 50,000 people turned up, but police said about 20,000 people joined the rally in the capital.
Pruning presidential powers
Vasudeva Nanayakarra, a former minister and the co-organiser of the rally, told Al Jazeera that they were hopeful the former president would agree to stand as their candidate for prime minister.
“Mahinda Rajapaksa will see today that the people still want him as their leader,” he said.
“Thousands have taken to the streets in a show of support and we will work to ensure he returns as a true leader of this country.”
He added that Rajapaksa supporters would continue to go around the country and re-gather the backing for the former president.
Nanayakarra added that Rajapaksa had not yet responded to his supporters’ invitation to contest the upcoming election likely to be held in July.
Sirisena has promised to prune presidential powers and empower the parliament under a prime minister who will be the head of the government.
Until Wednesday, Rajapaksa had stayed away from public appearance following his surprise loss to Sirisena on January 8.
Since coming to power, Sirisena has reversed many of his predecessor’s policies, and appointed a Tamil as the country’s chief justice.
The former president and his powerful brother are being investigated for running “death squads,” while a corruption investigation is under way against his family.
Rajapaksa has said that his defeat was due to a conspiracy.
“What we are experiencing today is not a defeat but a result of a conspiracy,” Rajapaksa said.