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Snap Presidential polls in Lanka on Jan 8

Maithripala Sirisena

Colombo, Nov 21 (PTI) Sri Lanka’s snap presidential polls will be held on January 8, it was announced today, a day after President Mahinda Rajapaksa sought an unprecedented third term amid a drop in his popularity and defection from his ruling coalition.

The election, which will see Rajapaksa seek a record third term, will take place exactly a month after the close of nominations on December 8, Chief Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya said in an official statement.

69-year-old Rajapaksa, who was elected in 2005 and 2010, called for early elections yesterday, a full two years before his tenure ends. Facing drop in his popularity, the Sri Lankan president received another jolt today as his Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena defected to become the opposition’s main candidate to challenge Rajapaksa’s bid to secure a record third term in office.

Sirisena, 63, was flanked by former president Chandrika Kumaratunga and several other parliamentarians who have defected to opposition ranks. Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne has also defected to opposition ranks.

Sirisena alleged that after the military victory against the LTTE in 2009 the Rajapaksa government ventured in a wrong direction.

“One family took control of the entire government”, he charged. “The country is heading towards a dictatorship.”

Rajapaksa became eligible to call an election on November 19 after completing the mandatory four years in his second term.

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) — the main constituent of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) — unanimously decided to field Rajapaksa as its candidate at the next Presidential election.

Under the constitution, the president may call elections four years into a term. The Supreme Court upheld this law earlier this month, paving the way for his announcement.

Rajapaksa’s decision came amid signs that he and his party were politically vulnerable. In local elections in September, his United People’s Freedom Alliance suffered its worst losses, losing roughly 20 per cent support among voters.

His ally, the National Heritage Party (JHU) this week announced that it was exiting the government. As the main party of Buddhist monks, its departure could damage his support in a country where Buddhists comprise nearly 70 per cent of its population of 21.8 million.

The JHU attributed Rajapaksa’s grip on power as a reason for its decision to leave the government, echoing an oft-voiced criticism by the opposition.

Rajapaksa narrowly won elections in 2005. Six years later, he and his party clinched an overwhelming victory, after his government’s success in defeating the LTTE in 2009, ending more than a quarter century of civil war.

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