Sri Lanka heads for snap presidential poll

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka will hold a presidential election in January, almost two years ahead of schedule, in which Mahinda Rajapakse will seek a third term, the information minister said Monday.

An early election had been widely expected. But the remarks by minister Keheliya Rambukwella were the first confirmation that Rajapakse was seeking a fresh mandate after removing the two-term limit on the presidency soon after winning re-election in 2010.

"The presidential election will be held in January," Rambukwella said at a public meeting in the district of Kandy.

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

There had been speculation that Rajapakse, who is also the finance minister, would call a snap election after he brought forward the 2015 national budget by a month to Friday.

His ruling United People's Freedom Alliance is expected to use the budget to try to boost its popularity after its share of the vote plummeted by over 20 percentage points in local elections held last month.

It was his party's worst performance since he came to power in 2005, and the main opposition United National Party more than doubled its vote.

Rajapakse gained popularity among Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese community by crushing a Tamil separatist rebellion in May 2009 and ending a 37-year-long Tamil separatist war.

However, he is also is under intense international pressure to probe allegations that his troops killed up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians while battling Tamil rebels in 2009.

Presidential elections are due by November 2016, but Rajapakse has the power to call them at any time.

Candidates need more than 50 percent of the vote to win in a complicated system of preferential voting.

It was not immediately clear how a January election would affect the Pope's plans to visit the island on January 13-15.

The Catholic church has made it clear that a papal visit would be inappropriate during an election campaign.

There was no immediate comment from the Roman Catholic church in Colombo.

Official sources said Rajapakse may make an announcement of the election date after he completes four years of his current term on November 19, a day after his 69th birthday.