COLOMBO - Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse declared Thursday he would seek an unprecedented third term at elections which will be held against a backdrop of growing international pressure over his government’s rights record.

The 69-year-old, South Asia’s longest serving leader, announced he would seek a fresh mandate two years before the expiry of his current six-year term by contesting a snap poll expected only days before the pope visits the island in mid-January. Despite recent electoral setbacks for his left-wing nationalist party, Rajapakse remains generally popular with majority Sinhalese voters after overseeing the end of a 37-year war against Tamil separatists in 2009.

But he is struggling to avoid international censure over allegations his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians in the bloody finale of the fighting and accusations that his administration has silenced dissenting voices, including the media and judiciary.

A lawyer by profession, Rajapakse has rewritten the constitution to allow him to stand for election again. Were he to win, he could stay in power until 2021.

Confirmation that Rajapakse would stand for re-election came in a brief statement from his office that said he had signed a “proclamation declaring his intention to hold a Presidential Election seeking another term”.

The proclamation has been sent to the chief elections commissioner, who will set the exact date. However ministers have already indicated the election would be in January.

An official in the president’s office, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP Thursday that the deadline for nominations was likely to be December 8 and the vote was expected on either January 7 or 8.

Pro-government astrologers have previously said the first week of January represents the most auspicious window of opportunity, and Rajapakse’s office released photos of him checking his watch Thursday to determine the best time to sign the proclamation.

The government is keen to hold the ballot before a scheduled visit by Pope Francis from January 13 to 15, with the Church warning that parties should not use the trip for political advantage.

Rajapakse came to power after narrowly winning the 2005 election, and increased his majority in 2010 after government troops routed the Tamil Tigers.

However the spectacular military success also sparked war crimes allegations, and Rajapakse’s administration is facing an international probe ordered by the UN Human Rights Council in line with a US-led resolution in March. His ongoing two-year chairmanship of the Commonwealth has also been overshadowed by the allegations.

Rajapakse has consistently refused to cooperate with international investigations, a stance that has strengthened his nationalistic credentials at home.

However, there are signs of growing disquiet over his failure to deliver on a promise to return the country to a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy by abolishing the all-powerful executive presidency.

His sacking of the chief justice in 2013 sparked protests at home and abroad, fuelling accusations of authoritarianism.

The election is being held two years ahead of schedule. Under the constitution, the incumbent is allowed to call fresh polls after completing four of his six years in office.

It is the first time that a president has sought a third term since the former British colony, which lies at the foot of India, adopted a presidential system in 1978.

Rajapakse’s United People’s Freedom Alliance vote share plummeted by over 20 percentage points at local elections in September as it suffered its worst performance since he came to power nine years ago.

However, a fractured opposition has failed to agree on a common candidate who could mount a serious challenge to Rajapakse.

The main opposition United National Party (UNP) vowed unity to challenge Rajapakse and welcomed the early elections.

“The opposition will unite behind one candidate whose name shall be revealed in due course,” said Karu Jayasuriya, the chairman of the policy-making leadership council of the UNP.

“We look forward to this battle against a corrupt, nepotistic and power hungry incumbent,” Jayasuriya told AFP.

On his 69th birthday Tuesday, Rajapakse suffered a minor political setback when a key ally, Sri Lanka’s main party of Buddhist monks announced it was quitting the government in protest at his failure to loosen his grip on power before a re-election bid.

The JHU, or National Heritage Party, as well as some of Rajapakse’s stalwarts have criticised his move to call snap elections without delivering on previous pledges.