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 Mr Rajapakse, who crushed separatist Tamil rebels in a 2009 offensive that sparked war crimes allegations.
Although the TNA has been a long-time critic of Mr Rajpakse, it is the first time it has expressed support for opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, who hopes to end the incumbent's nine-year rule in the January 8 presidential election.
"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 Mr Rajapakse's cabinet last month.
Minority Tamils and Muslims account for nearly 23 per cent 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 Mr Rajapakse and Mr Sirisena, the former health minister, are Buddhists from the Sinhalese community.
TNA leader Mr Sampanthan accused Mr Rajapakse of failing to ensure ethnic reconciliation after crushing Tamil separatists in May 2009.
Mr Rajapakse's popularity among the mainly Buddhist 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," Mr 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.
Mr Sampanthan said he was confident that Tamils would topple Mr Rajapakse, who is accused of increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Within a year of defeating the Tiger guerrillas, Mr Rajapakse removed the two-term limit on the presidency.
He has also taken control over key state institutions and sacked chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake last year after she gave rulings that went against the government.