In a major setback to President Mahinda Rajapaksa ahead of the January 8 polls, Sri Lanka’s main Muslim party on Sunday quit his government and pledged support to the opposition camp led by challenger Maithripala Sirisena.
Announcing the decision at a press conference, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauf Hakeem said he would resign from the post of Justice Minister. Eight parliamentarians of the SLMC left the government along with him.
The SLMC in 2010 supported the 18th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution that lifted the two-term limit on the presidency. “We are guilty of compliance, and want to redress that,” Mr. Hakeem said, explaining his party’s disillusionment with the statute that enables the executive President to use wide-ranging powers.
At Sunday’s press conference, Mr. Hakeem — the second Muslim Minister to leave the Rajapaksa government after Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen defected recently ——highlighted “good governance” as a key election theme.
Given the prevalent concerns over religious freedom in Sri Lanka — also highlighted by the U.N. Human Rights Council — SLMC’s likely election stance was a subject of keen discussion in Colombo ever since President Rajapaksa called snap polls.
Sri Lanka, over the last couple of years, witnessed a spate of anti-Muslim attacks — on mosques, Muslim-owned establishments and a campaign against halal certification — by extremist groups allegedly with state patronage.
In June, three persons died and nearly 80 were injured in violent clashes in the coastal town of Aluthgama, south of Colombo. Instigated reportedly by hard-line group Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist power force), the incidents evoked much concern among the minority Muslims, who make up about 10 per cent of the island nation’s population. Mr. Hakeem then said the attacks on Muslims were not isolated, but part of a “larger national project” and “virtual holocaust” against Muslims.
The SLMC’s move is significant, as minorities’ votes could play a crucial role in this election. The incumbent President and his principal challenger Mr. Sirisena, who quit the government to be named common candidate, both represent the majority Sinhalese community. The Tamil National Alliance, the main party representing the northern Tamils of the country, is expected to announce its position this week.