Candidate Maithripala Sirisena said he would also negotiate with the European Union to win back tariff concessions that were withdrawn four years ago after Colombo refused to bring about democratic reforms.
“I will negotiate to get back the ‘GSP-plus’ (generalised scheme of preferences) to ensure we export more and create more jobs,” Sirisena said while releasing his party’s 63-page manifesto.
He did not outline what his approach with the EU would be, but his manifesto promised that if elected, his party would set up independent bodies to run the civil service, the police, the judiciary and the elections department.
The refusal to commit to good governance conditions led to Sri Lanka’s exports losing preferential tariffs from member states across the European Union in 2010.
According to the manifesto, a Sirisena administration would also set up a special domestic court to investigate war crimes allegations, a long-standing demand of neighbouring India and Western nations, who in March established a UN probe after Colombo insisted that no abuses had taken place.
International rights groups say up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed by government forces in the final months of fighting, when the leadership of the Tamil Tiger separatists was wiped out, after decades of ethnic war.
Sirisena, who defected from Rajapakse’s cabinet last month to mount a surprise challenge, said he would restore chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake who was sacked last year after some of her rulings went against the administration’s policies.
The controversial impeachment of the chief justice was criticised by the UN Human Rights Council as well as other governments as an assault on the independence of the judiciary in Sri Lanka.
Sirisena’s manifesto carried several populist measures, including a 10,000-rupee salary increase to public servants, free Internet wi-fi zones across the country and a host of agricultural subsidies.
Sirisena, a former health minister, also said he would bring back parliamentary democracy and won’t allow separatist Tamil Tiger rebels to re-emerge, a promise made by President Rajapakse too.
The UN has estimated that at least 100,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka’s separatist war between 1972 and 2009.
Rajapakse, 69, was seen as the favourite when he called the January 8 snap election two years ahead of schedule.
But Sirisena, 63, has emerged as a formidable opponent after securing the support of all main opposition groups.
The popularity of Rajapakse’s party showed a 21 percentage point decline at local elections in September. (AFP)