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Sri Lanka polls timed ahead of UN war crimes report to foil Rajapaksa comeback

Sri Lanka’s August elections have been timed to stop a comeback by war-time president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who remarkably may see his popularity rise in coming months if criticised for war crimes in a U.N report, said government sources.

Rajapaksa’s crushing of a 26-year Tamil Tiger insurgency in 2009 won him support among the country’s Sinhalese majority and he still has a very strong following.

Thousands rallied to hear him announce his comeback campaign on a Buddhist holiday in his Hambantota district on July 1.

“He is popular and a strong campaigner among Sinhala masses with the war victory,” said Kusal Perera, director of the Centre for Social Democracy, a Colombo-based think tank.

A U.N. report on the last days of the war is due for release in September but an aide to President Maithripala Sirisena said diplomatic sources had warned it may be leaked in late August.

The possibility of an early release prompted Sirisena to call elections for August 17 to give his ally Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe an edge and hopefully deny Rajapaksa any chance of a political resurgence, said sources close to Sirisena.

“Even if is not said openly, the U.N. report was considered when deciding the date,” Champika Ranawaka, power and energy minister and one of Sirisena’s close allies, said.

Foreign diplomatic sources said some Western countries also worried the U.N. report could help Rajapaksa and urged Sirisena not to delay elections.

Dissolving parliament for August elections has also saved Wickremesinghe from a scheduled no-confidence motion over alleged mismanagement of the economy.

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