President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost at least three key Muslim politicians to the joint opposition just weeks ahead of Sri Lanka’s January 8 presidential election, but he may have lost a majority of Muslim votes long before.
Incessant speculation had been on for months about the election stance of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the country’s main Muslim party, when All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader and Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen made an unexpected exit from the government.
Mr. Bathiudeen, known to be a close friend of the President’s brother and Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, cited the government’s “failure to curb anti-Muslim attacks” as the reason for his pulling out.
His move, besides raising eyebrows, put enormous pressure on Justice Minister and SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem, whose party defected en masse soon after. “We had no option but to leave. We cannot face our electorate otherwise,” said a senior member of the party.
Their crossover came at a time when those working at the ground level were near-certain that irrespective of the parties’ position, a large section of Muslims were very likely to vote against the incumbent.
The trend was only to be expected. In the last couple of years, Sri Lanka has witnessed several attacks on Muslim establishments and places of worship, sparking serious concern about religious freedom in the country.
Anxiety grew in June after violent clashes in the southern coastal town of Aluthgama left four dead.
Though the SLMC strongly condemned the attack, it did not leave the government then, much to the disappointment of many of its supporters. “We realised that if we do not come out now, we will lose all credibility as a party,” a senior SLMC member remarked.
Sri Lanka’s second largest minority after Tamils, Muslims account for about 10 per cent of the electorate. Predominantly inhabiting the Eastern Province — across Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ampara districts along the island’s eastern coast — the Tamil-speaking community has preferred to be identified as a separate ethnic group, particularly after the LTTE expelled them from Jaffna peninsula in 1990.
Their votes, along with those of the Tamils, are expected to prove crucial — particularly if the majority Sinhalese votes are split between Mr. Rajapaksa and his challenger Maithripala Sirisena, both representing the Sinhala-Buddhist community.
Extremist violence The Muslims’ disenchantment with the government did not manifest merely in the context of elections. There has been simmering discontent in the community for some time over Buddhist fundamentalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) gaining prominence, allegedly with state patronage.
The BBS, which has been accused of provoking religious clashes against minorities, including the one in Aluthgama, recently pledged support to Mr. Rajapaksa, prompting President’s counsel and Deputy Minister of Investment Faizer Mustapha to leave the ruling coalition. The Muslim Minister had earlier said he would quit the government should the BBS back the President.
Sri Lanka’s Muslim parties have been traditionally perceived as kingmakers, often siding with those in power. Political analysts say the country’s Muslims were earlier supporters of the United National Party (UNP), now the main Opposition.
Over the years, they turned toward Mr. Rajapaksa who offered desirable political positions to Muslim leaders, and offered hope to the Muslim people.
“But the government could not sustain that public support,” said N. M. Ameen, who heads Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL), an umbrella group of nearly 50 Muslim organisations.
Meek coalition partners The Muslims’ support waned not only for Mr. Rajapaksa, but also for the community’s leaders. The common Muslim public often accused their leaders of being meek coalition partners and mute spectators.
Indicating that the party may have finally caught a whiff of the sentiment, an SLMC member remarked: “We have to take their views very seriously. Not addressing those concerns now will cost us heavily in the parliamentary elections that are likely in a year.”
It is this mounting pressure from the electorate, rather than any principled stance, that made the Muslim leadership detach itself from the Rajapaksa government.
Mr. Hakeem, while announcing his choice to leave the government, said he regretted having supported in Parliament the controversial 18th Amendment in 2010, which lifted the two-term limit on Presidency. “We are guilty of compliance, and want to redress that,” the former Justice Minister said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rajapaksa appears hopeful of some support from the Muslims. Campaigning in the Northern Province on Friday, he said at a public rally in Mannar, which has a sizeable Muslim population: “I am requesting the Muslim community not to let any politician auction your vote.”
“It does not matter who has changed sides, I am always on your side. Trust me. I will protect you all,” he said, speaking a few lines in Tamil, a week ahead of polling day.
(This is the second of a three-part series. Read the first part >here )