Sri Lanka's main Muslim party quits govt ahead of polls

Sri Lanka's main Muslim party on Sunday quit the government and decided to support the opposition in the January 8 presidential polls in a move seen as a major setback to President Mahinda Rajapakse's bid to seek a record third term.

Colombo: Sri Lanka's main Muslim party on Sunday quit the government and decided to support the opposition in the January 8 presidential polls in a move seen as a major setback to President Mahinda Rajapakse's bid to seek a record third term.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauf Hakeem said they left the government due to differences over a 2010 law that lifted the two-term limit on the presidency and gave 68-year-old Rajapakse wide powers over the police, the judiciary and the civil service.

"We have decided to support the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena," Hakeem the SLMC leader told reporters.

"We have now realised the mistake in supporting the amendment which abolished the 17th amendment," he said.

Hakeem said he has resigned as the Minister of Justice in the Rajapaksa government, becoming the second Muslim minister to quit Rajapakse government after Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen.

He said his party would now hold talks with the main opposition United National Party.

The SLMC now joins a number of parties supporting Sirisena, the former health minister of Rajapaksa.

Sirisen defected to the opposition camp along with several other senior leaders of the ruling UPFA coalition last month.

Rajapaksa, who was elected in 2005 and in 2010, called the election two years ahead of schedule in an apparent attempt to seek a fresh mandate before his party's popularity tumbles further, after dropping over 21 per cent in September's local elections.

In the last presidential election held in 2010, Rajapaksa won 58 per cent of the vote without the SLMC's support. The party had then backed the opposition challenger Sarath Fonseka.

The President relies on the support from the majority Sinhala community.

Muslims, the second largest minority in the island after Hindu Tamils, account for about 10 per cent of the electorate and could play a decisive role in the elections. The main Buddhist party has already quit the government.

The Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil party, has also hinted that it will support Sirisena.

The opposition have announced a plan for democratic reforms calling Rajapaksa's administration authoritarian and family-centric.

The opposition unity candidate has pledged to abolish the system of executive presidency by forming a national unity government.

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