Sri Lankan president, 18 others submit candidacy papers for Jan. 8 election

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his former health minister were among 19 people who submitted candidacy papers Monday to contest next month's presidential election.

Rajapaksa, who was first elected in 2005 and won re-election in 2009, called the election two years early to seek an unprecedented third term amid growing international and local criticism.

His administration has been accused of corruption, nepotism and autocratic leadership, and faces a United Nations inquiry into alleged war crimes during the closing months of a 25-year separatist war.

"I will win, I know the people are with me, it's very clear," Rajapaksa told reporters outside the elections office.

Three of Rajapaksa's brothers hold top positions in his government — one as defense secretary, another as parliamentary speaker and the third as a Cabinet minister. Rajapaksa's elder son and a niece are lawmakers and other relatives are in the government bureaucracy and diplomatic positions.

Rajapaksa's former health minister and his party's No. 2 official, Maithripala Sirisena, has become his main challenger and is backed by the main opposition United National Party.

Sirisena has vowed to abolish the president's executive powers and strengthen Parliament and the judiciary.

"I will be committed to bring about the changes the country needs," Sirisena said. "We will wipe out family rule, strengthen freedom and democracy and build up a country free of corruption and fear."

Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya rejected objections raised against the candidacies of both Rajapaksa and Sirisena, saying their applications were within the rules. But he expressed concern over election violence that has broken out, and advised candidates and supporters to respect election laws.

He urged the news media and government officials to act impartially, and said his office will monitor coverage of the election.

Several opposition supporters and their homes have been attacked since Sirisena defected from Rajapaksa's government and announced his candidacy last month.

The election is on Jan. 8, just five days before Pope Francis is to begin a three-day visit. The closeness between the election and the papal visit and the possibility of violence has prompted some Roman Catholic clergy to seek a postponement of the visit.

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