Freedom Alliance, of which the SLFP is a member. Of the alliance’s 161 parliamentarians, 23 have defected to his side. If others are included who have switched allegiances at provincial and local levels, the defection rate in this campaign has been among the highest seen in any election in Sri Lanka.
For Mr Rajapaksa, a heavy blow was the departure from the alliance of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, or National Heritage Party, which counts many saffron-robed Buddhist monks among its Sinhala nationalist members. On December 28th the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress also defected, saying Sri Lanka needed to be better governed. The Tamil National Alliance, an opposition group that is normally at odds with the Sinhala majority, says everyone should vote for Mr Sirisena. It accuses Mr Rajapaksa’s government of having been “particularly harmful to the well-being of the Tamil-speaking peoples of Sri Lanka”.
Mr Rajapaksa thus looks squeezed. Muslims and Tamils together make up nearly a quarter of the 21m-strong population. Muslims are furious at the Bodu Bala Sena, or “Buddhist Power Force”, which is avowedly anti-Muslim and supports the president’s re-election.
The president’s campaign promises include universal housing, development, industrial growth and jobs. He vows to defeat drug and other gangs. He also says he will not let anyone who fought the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a rebel organisation that was crushed in a military campaign by his government in 2009, “answer to any international judiciary or tribunal”. His ending of a long civil war that year, by defeating the Tigers, is still his strongest electoral asset; he has been flogging it heavily to everyone but the Tamil northerners (they are told instead to be grateful for better roads and railways). To stir nationalist support, he invokes conspiracy theories. Supposedly Mr Sirisena’s campaign is backed by the West who want to replace a strong leader with a “spineless puppet”, though no proof of Western meddling is ever offered.
Mr Sirisena’s rallies draw huge crowds—as do the president’s, even if most of Mr Rajapaksa’s supporters are ferried to them on public buses. With his frequent use of state-run media and official vehicles to help his campaign, Mr Rajapaksa looks increasingly jittery. His eldest son, Namal Rajapaksa, even invited Bollywood actors to add glitz to the re-election bid. All the signs are that this will be the closest presidential race yet.