Sri Lanka calls early presidential elections

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Mahinda Rajapaksa first won the presidency in 2005

Sri Lanka will hold presidential elections in January, nearly two years ahead of schedule, the government's information minister says.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa is expected to seek a third term at the elections.

Mr Rajapaksa won a landslide victory in 2010, and is currently serving a six-year term.

In September 2010, Sri Lankan MPs voted to approve constitutional amendments allowing Mr Rajapaksa to seek an unlimited number of presidential terms.

Critics had argued that the amendments could lead to dictatorship, and the main opposition United National Party boycotted the vote.

Mr Rajapaksa first won the presidency in 2005 when Sri Lanka was in the middle of a tenuous ceasefire agreement with the Tamil Tiger rebels.

He won his second term after calling a snap election in January 2010, but was only inaugurated in November that year because of legal arguments over the timing of that election.

He is popular with much of the country's Sinhalese majority for presiding over the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009.

However, he has also faced criticism for events at the end of the civil war as troops battled to corner and crush the separatists.

A report commissioned by the UN in 2011 says it believed tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the final stage, most of them by government shelling. The government has consistently rejected such figures.

'Rebel with a cause'

Speaking at a public meeting on Monday, Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said: "The presidential election will be held in January.

"I know the date but can't say it at the moment."

Under Sri Lanka's electoral rules, if no candidate wins 50% of ballots cast in the first count, then voters' second - or even third - preferences are tallied to determine the winner.

Mr Rajapaksa, a former lawyer, has described himself on his website as "a rebel with a cause". His core support is rural, conservative, Buddhist and dominated by the Sinhalese majority.

His critics accuse him of an authoritarian style of leadership and say he has crushed any dissent, but Mr Rajapaksa says he is guaranteeing Sri Lanka much-needed stability after a quarter century of civil war.