COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's largest Muslim political party on Sunday defected from President Mahinda Rajapaksa's camp to support the opposition candidate in next month's presidential election.
With Sunday's announcement Sri Lanka Muslim Congress became the latest partner of Rajapaksa's ruling coalition to withdraw support, dealing a major blow to his campaign for a third term in office, with more than 20 lawmakers and ministers already defecting to the opposition.
Party leader and Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem also resigned from the Cabinet.
Ameer Faaiz, an official of the party that represents minority Muslims in overwhelmingly Buddhist Sri Lanka, cited the Rajapaksa administration's "intolerance toward religious minorities" and disagreement with his style of rule.
He said the party consulted its supporters, who were of the overwhelming opinion that they could no longer stand with Rajapaksa and that they would throw their support behind his rival Maithripala Sirisena.
An attack on Muslims in June that was provoked by a Sri Lankan Buddhist ultranationalist and left three dead and dozens injured exacerbated ethnic tensions in the aftermath of a decades-long civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels that ended in 2009.
Rajapaksa's government had come under heavy criticism in recent years for backing extremist Buddhist groups and turning a blind eye to the recent anti-Muslim violence. Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Force accused of instigating the violence has announced its support to Rajapaksa in the election.
Sirisena is a former health minister who split from Rajapaksa last month to run for president in the biggest challenge for the incumbent since he was first elected in 2005.