Mon, Dec 29, 2014 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lanka snap polls see shake-up

MUSLIMS MOVE OUT:Citing ‘festering differences’ over a presidential term-limit law, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress quit the government to back the opposition

AFP, COLOMBO

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauf Hakeem, right, embraces a colleague after a news conference in Colombo yesterday.

Photo: AFP

Sri Lanka’s main Muslim political party quit the government and pledged support to the opposition yesterday in a move seen as the biggest setback yet to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s re-election bid.

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress party leader Rauf Hakeem also announced his own resignation as minister of justice and said he would now work for the victory of former Sri Lankan minister of health Maithripala Sirisena, the opposition candidate in Jan. 8 polls.

Hakeem attributed the move to festering differences over a 2010 law that lifted the two-term limit on the presidency and gave Rajapakse wide powers over police forces, the judiciary and the civil service.

“Good governance is the main issue for us,” Hakeem told reporters. “We are guilty of compliance [in voting for the 2010 statute], but now we want to redress the situation.”

There was no immediate comment from Sri Lanka’s government, but a ruling party source told reporters that the defection of the Muslim party was the biggest blow to their campaign.

Muslims, the second-largest minority in the island after Hindu Tamils, account for about 10 percent of the electorate and could emerge as kingmakers in the presidential election if the majority Sinhalese are split.

Rajapakse and Sirisena are members of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community.

Hakeem becomes the second Muslim minister to quit Rajapakse’s government after former minister of industry and commerce Rishad Bathiudeen resigned.

Sirisena defected to the opposition last month after giving up his portfolio as minister of health.

The main Buddhist party of monks quit the government before Sirisena’s defection and has since backed his bid to topple Rajapakse, who came to power in 2005 and is South Asia’s longest-serving leader.

The Tamil National Alliance, the main party representing Hindu Tamils, has not formally pledged support to either of the main Sinhalese candidates, but has strongly hinted that it will support Sirisena.

That would make it even more difficult for Rajapakse to win an election that he called two years ahead of schedule.

However, Rajapakse has received the support of a radical outfit known as the Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Force, which has been accused of instigating religious hate attacks in the past two years.

The outfit has formed an alliance with Myanmar’s 969 movement, a Buddhist group linked to anti-Muslim riots in that nation.

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