Uncertainty looms over Rajapaksa's bid for third term as former aides defect

Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, a seasoned election campaigner, scheduled elections for 8 January, two years ahead of schedule, fully confident that the electorate would return him to power for a third term, The New York Times reported.

However, things do not seem to be working in his favour, with defections leaving him so jittery that he has started promising concessions - including constitutional reforms and an investigation into possible war crimes committed during the government's campaign against Tamil rebels.

The president's former allies describe a ''soft dictatorship'' controlled by Rajapaksa and his kinsmen, who have grabbed scores of top government posts.

The defectors tell audience at election rallies how they plotted through private group chats on a smart phone app.

Meanwhile, officials in New Delhi, Washington and Beijing are watching developments in the island nation closely.

Rajapaksa has leaned towards China, which had provided Sri Lanka billions of dollars in loans for building new ports and highways. India miffed with the growing ties in recent months had twice protested the appearance of Chinese submarines in a port in Colombo, the capital.

Emboldened by his increasing popularity after crushing the Tamil insurgents Rajapaksa scrapped the constitutional limit of two six-year presidential terms and sent the chief justice of the Supreme Court packing when she resisted his centralisation of power.

According to commentators, Rajapaksa seemed to be less vigilant about the growing dissent among those who sat beside him in cabinet meetings.

Meanwhile, DMK leader M Karunanidhi yesterday said Rajapaksa's election promise of a ''transparent, judicial inquiry'' probing the allegations of war crimes against the Sri Lankan army had exposed his ''double face.''

''When the Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation (TESO) and others made a case for an inquiry, he rejected the demand outright. Now, he is making the promise to win the votes of the Tamils in the island nation,'' Karunanidhi said in a statement.

Even though Rajapaksa had campaigned in Tamil areas and called on the people to forget the past, he had shown willingness to align with any Tamil organisation.

''Both Mr. Rajapaksa and his rival candidate and former health minister Maithripala Sirisena feel that they might not get the majority Sinhalese vote if they supported the cause of the Tamils,'' Karunanidhi pointed out.