Sri Lanka ruling party prepares for snap poll: Sources

 Sri Lanka`s ruling party began work Thursday on an election campaign, party sources said, in a strong indication that it will press ahead with snap presidential polls expected in early January.

AFP| Updated: Sep 25, 2014, 18:06 PM IST

Colombo: Sri Lanka`s ruling party began work Thursday on an election campaign, party sources said, in a strong indication that it will press ahead with snap presidential polls expected in early January.

The move came despite the United People`s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) suffering a sharp decline in a local election held at the weekend that was seen as a gauge for presidential polls.

Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapakse inaugurated an "Operations Centre" to lead his brother President Mahinda Rajapakse`s bid for a third term in office, the sources said.

"Basil cut a blue ribbon (the colour of the party) to launch the office at the astrologically auspicious time of 10:01 am (0431 GMT) and commence work," a party official at the ceremony told AFP.

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.

The UPFA saw its vote plummet by over 20 percentage points in elections on Saturday for the Uva Provincial council in which the main opposition United National Party (UNP) more than doubled its vote. 

It was the party`s worst performance since Rajapakse came to power in 2005.

"The feeling is that the longer you delay, the worse it will get for the president," a senior UPFA source told AFP, adding that the presidential election was "most likely to be held in the second week of January."

If held in the first half of January, the elections would come just before a visit by Pope Francis, who has announced he will be on the island from January 13 to 15.

The Roman Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has asked all politicians not to use the papal visit as a political tool in their campaigning to secure votes from the 7.5 percent of the population that is Christian.

Last week, UPFA politician Dayasiri Jayasekera accused unnamed foreign governments of trying to engineer "regime change" by supporting the UNP.

President Rajapakse, who is currently in New York attending the UN General Assembly, 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.

Rajapakse has gained popularity among the majority Sinhalese community by crushing Tamil separatists. Soon after winning re-election in 2010, Rajapakse re-wrote the constitution to remove a two-term limit on the presidency.