Page last updated at 15:49 GMT, Friday, 18 December 2009

Sri Lanka presidential campaigning heats up

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Colombo

Mahinda Rajapaksa

Sri Lanka's presidential election campaign has begun in earnest, with the two main candidates addressing rallies a day after nominations closed.

There are 22 in the frame, although the most dominant are the two major figures seen as appealing to Sinhalese nationalist sentiments.

Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa is being challenged by the disaffected former forces chief Gen Sarath Fonseka.

Voting is due to take place towards the end of next month.

Huge rally

Both Gen Fonseka and Mr Rajapaksa chose cities holy to the Sinhalese majority to kick off their campaigns with religious blessings and rallies.

Gen Sarath Fonseka, pictured 15 July 2009

In the hill city of Kandy, home to a sacred relic of Buddha, there has been huge interest in the general's gathering, with people surging through the town centre, climbing on roofs and trees for better views despite heavy rain.

In Anuradhapura, in the plains, there was a similarly huge rally for the president.

On Thursday, the two men shook hands warmly when filing their nominations.

But there are major tensions.

Referring to the president and his powerful brothers, the general says he is campaigning against family-based rule.

Mr Rajapaksa, who has a far bigger security detail as a candidate, is so far staying further above the political fray and has mostly been entertaining crowds of public workers and professionals at his residence.

There have been defectors both ways. A former national cricket captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, belongs to the governing party but says he will support Gen Fonseka to curb corruption in sport.

Two opposition MPs, meanwhile, defected to the president's side and within a few hours were rewarded with ministerial posts.

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Indian Express Rajapaksa, Fonseka file nominations - 58 hrs ago
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