COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa called an early election Thursday to seek a third term in office amid growing criticism of his wide-ranging powers.
The move, two years before his current term expires, is seen as an attempt by Rajapaksa to prevent an expected loss of public support if an election were held according to schedule.
He continues to enjoy much of the popularity he gained by ending a 25-year civil war in 2009, but recent provincial elections showed signs of a slide in support amid rising living costs, corruption allegations and a deterioration in law and order.
Rajapaksa had earlier promised to abolish the presidency because of widespread criticism that the office has too much power and lacks accountability.
However, spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said the president signed a proclamation Thursday declaring "his intention to be elected for another term."
The proclamation was sent to the Election Commission, which will decide on a date. Senior officials have said the polls are likely in the first week of January.
The main opposition parties are negotiating to field a joint opposition candidate with a pledge to abolish the executive presidency. A Cabinet minister from Rajapaksa's ruling coalition resigned Tuesday to protest the president's refusal to heed demands that he prune his extensive powers and carry out democratic reforms.
Rajapaksa was first elected in 2005 and overwhelmingly won another six-year term in 2010. He used his party's parliamentary dominance after that victory to change the constitution and scrap a two-term limit for presidents, but some legal experts argued that he couldn't contest another election because he was elected for his second term under the old rule.
The Supreme Court — appointed by Rajapaksa under powers he received through the same 2010 constitutional change — ruled earlier this month that he could seek a third term.
Rajapaksa's supporters lit firecrackers Thursday to celebrate his decision.
Political analyst Jehan Perera said Rajapaksa called the early election because of his diminishing popularity and a possible loss of public confidence over a variety of problems he faces.
The United Nations is investigating his administration over alleged war crimes during the closing months of the civil war, while his government has been unable to find a political solution to the ethnic problems that led to the war or cope with growing economic hardships.
Rajapaksa has rejected the U.N. probe and refused to allow investigators into the country.