COLOMBO (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s largest Tamil party Tuesday endorsed the main opposition candidate in next week’s election, accusing President Mahinda Rajapakse of failing to deliver reconciliation after the country’s ethnic war.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) said it would work to defeat Rajapakse, who crushed separatist Tamil rebels in a 2009 offensive that sparked war crimes allegations, in the January 8 presidential election.
Although the TNA has been a long-time critic of Rajapakse, it is the first time it has expressed support for opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, who hopes to end the incumbent’s nine-year rule.
"The TNA at forthcoming presidential elections extends its fullest support to the joint opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena," the party’s leader Rajavarothiam Sampanthan told reporters.
The announcement came two days after the second largest minority party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, defected from the government and pledged support to Sirisena — who himself quit Rajapakse’s cabinet last month.
Minority Tamils and Muslims account for nearly 23 percent of the electorate and could emerge as kingmakers in the election if the majority Buddhists, who are mainly ethnic Sinhalese, are split down the middle.
Both Rajapakse and Sirisena, the former health minister, are Buddhists from the Sinhalese community.
TNA leader Sampanthan accused Rajapakse of failing to ensure ethnic reconciliation after crushing Tamil separatists in May 2009.
Rajapakse’s popularity among the Sinhala increased after he ended the 37-year-old guerrilla war, which the UN says left at least 100,000 people dead between 1972 and 2009.
However, his party’s popularity showed a 21-point decline at local elections in September.
"The president had the opportunity to solve the national (ethnic) question, but he failed," Sampanthan said.
"We are looking for a peaceful, honourable and a permanent solution within the framework of a united and an undivided Sri Lanka."
Tamils have been pressing for limited autonomy in areas where they are concentrated.
– Intimidation fears –
Sampanthan said he was confident that Tamils would topple Rajapakse, but appealed to the elections chief and the police to ensure that Tamils are not intimidated into staying away from the poll.
Private election monitors have expressed fears the government may deploy the military in former war zones to discourage Tamils from going to polling booths, and thereby reduce the opposition’s vote.
"We appeal to the Elections Commissioner (Mahinda Deshapriya) and the Inspector General (N. K. Illangakoon) to ensure that people able to exercise their sovereign right to vote," Sampanthan said.
Despite allegations of military threats against voters, large numbers turned out at September 2013 local elections in the northern province, the Tamil-majority former war zone, and elected a TNA-led council which was given a two-thirds majority.
Sampanthan said Tamils believe that Rajapakse, who is accused of increasingly authoritarian tendencies, blocked the local government body from carrying out any meaningful work in the past year.
Within a year of defeating the Tiger guerrillas, Rajapakse removed the two-term limit on the presidency.
He has also taken control of key state institutions and sacked chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake last year after she gave rulings that went against the government.