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Sri Lanka Muslim party quits in blow to Rajapakse

COLOMBO (EconomyNext) – Industry and Commerce minister Rishad Bathiudeen and his party withdrew support to President Mahinda Rajapakse in another unexpected blow ahead of next month’s snap election.

Bathiudeen, better known as Rishad, and his ACMC party were strong allies of Rajapakse and only two weeks ago cut a deal to secure an additional parliamentary seat for Amir Ali, a regional leader from the eastern province.

On Monday, the new MP Amir Ali pledged his support to opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena in a major snub to president Rajapakse who had gone out of his way to get his national list MP A. H. M. Azwar to quit to make for Ali.

Officially, the reason for Rishad to quit is the government’s alleged support to the Bodu Bala Sena in their campaign against minority Muslims, but a more recent violent clash between government MP Sri Ranga may have been the trigger.

Rishad did not refer to his confrontation with Ranga who is also closely associated with the Maharaja group. Rishad was a notable absentee when President Rajapakse toured the Mullaitivu district last week to address campaign rallies.

The president travelled to neighbouring Mullaittivu and Kilinochchi districts last week without travelling to Rishard’s Mannar district.

He said some 69 elected representatives from his All Ceylon Makkal (People’s) Congress (ACMC) were joining the opposition in a mass defection of Muslims politicians from the government.

Rishard had broken away from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Muslim  which remains with the government, but its rank and file are known to have already changed allegiance to the opposition because of their opposition to recent attacks against their community.

Muslims, the second largest minority in the island after Hindu Tamils, account for about 10 percent of the electorate and could emerge as king-makers in January’s presidential election if the majority Sinhalese are split down the middle.

Both Rajapakse and Sirisena are members of the majority Sinhala – Buddhist community. However, Sirisena is seen securing the support of ethnic and religious minorities who feel alienated during Rajapakse’s rule in the past nine years.

The Hindu-Tamils have not formally pledged support to either of the two main Sinhalese candidates, but have strongly hinted that they will support Sirisena  making it even more difficult for Rajapakse at a snap poll he himself called two years ahead of schedule.

Rajapakse, 69, was seen as the favourite when last month he called the election, but now faces a formidable challenge.

The country’s main party of Buddhist monks, the JHU is backing Sirisena while a more radical outfit known as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or Buddhist Force, is favouring Rajapakse.