COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s army defied orders from aides of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to keep him in power “by force” when it became clear he had lost his bid for a third term, the campaign spokesman of the newly elected leader said on Saturday.
Rajapaksa’s spokesman denied the allegation, while the army spokesman said he was unaware of any such order.
Rajapaksa lost Thursday’s election, ending a decade of rule that critics said had become increasingly authoritarian and marred by nepotism and corruption.
Rajitha Senaratne, a lawmaker who acted as the spokesman for new President Maithripala Sirisena during the campaign, said Rajapaksa’s administration had sought the backing of the military to stay in power.
“The army chief got orders to deploy the troops on the ground across the country. They tried attempts to continue by force. The army chief defied all the orders he got in the last hours,” Senaratne told reporters at a news conference in Colombo, the first by Sirisena’s aides since the vote.
“We spoke to the army chief and told him not to do this. He kept the troops in the barracks and helped a free and fair election,” Senaratne said.
Mohan Samaranayake, spokesman for the former president, said Rajapaksa denied the allegations and had decided to transfer power after looking at the trend of the results in the early hours of Friday.
“When U.S. State Secretary John Kerry spoke to Rajapaksa over the phone, the former president assured him there will be a smooth power transition as stipulated in the constitution,” Samaranayake told Reuters.
Military spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya said he was unaware of any such order made to the army. He said the military stayed out of the election process at every stage.
“Sri Lanka’s military will not do anything to disrupt the democratic traditions and process,” he said.
Speculation had been rife in Colombo just before the election that force could be used to keep Sirisena voters from polling stations or even that the military could intervene if Rajapaksa looked set to lose.
U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Sirisena on his victory in a statement on Saturday.
“I also commend the outgoing administration of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa for facilitating a swift and orderly transition of power,” Obama said.
Sirisena took 51.3 percent of the vote, while Rajapaksa got 47.6 percent. Rajapaksa, even before the official results were announced, conceded his defeat and left his official residence.
Reporting by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Rosalind Russell