JAFFNA, Sri Lanka (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s embattled President Mahinda Rajapakse urged minority Tamils to back him in next week’s election, calling himself the “known devil”, as he made a final push for votes in the country’s former war zone Friday.
While he remains popular among ethnic majority Sinhalese voters, Rajapakse is widely detested by members of the country’s biggest minority after overseeing the brutal crushing of a 37-year Tamil rebellion.
The main Tamil party has already endorsed Rajapakse’s chief rival Maithripala Sirisena in the January 8 election but the incumbent told voters in the northern Jaffna region that he was committed to improving their livelihoods, pointing to improvements in infrastructure.
“This is my 11th visit to Jaffna as president,” Rajapakse, who has been in power for nearly a decade, told a rally.
“The devil you know is better than the unknown angel,” he said in Sinhala, speaking through a translator.
“I am the known devil, so please vote for me.”
The 69-year-old, who is South Asia’s longest-serving leader after coming to power in 2005, then listed a series of infrastructure projects that had been completed since the end of the Tamil separatist conflict in 2009.
“We gave you electricity, we gave you new schools and now we want to give you proper water supplies,” he said, in a region that was devastated by the separatist conflict.
Rajapakse had been due to inaugurate the latest stretch of a reopened rail link from the capital Colombo to Jaffna but he cancelled his plans at the last minute, leaving his transport minister to do the honours.
Tamils account for around 13 per cent of the 15 million people entitled to cast their ballots next Thursday and their choice of candidate could be crucial to the outcome of what is shaping up to be a tight contest.
Rajapakse had been the clear favourite but a series of defections by allies, including his one-time health minister Sirisena, have thrown the contest wide open and the president now needs every vote he can muster.
Although the economy has been growing at rates of around seven per cent in the post-war era, many voters say that ruling party cronies have been the only ones to really benefit.