Sri Lanka leader suffers more defections ahead of vote

Sri Lanka leader suffers more defections ahead of vote

COLOMBO - Two Sri Lankan ministers quit the government Wednesday, leaving President Mahinda Rajapakse without the two-thirds parliamentary majority he enjoyed before calling a snap election to seek an unprecedented third term.

The latest defections reflected growing political disenchantment with the president.

Botanical Gardens deputy minister V. S. Radhakrishnan and National Language Integration deputy P. Digambaram joined opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, who is spearheading the challenge to Rajapakse in the January 8 election.

"There will be more defections before the election," Sirisena told reporters at a news conference.

"I am confident of victory in the elections," Sirisena said.

Rajapakse's party still holds a comfortable simple majority, but loss of the two-thirds support means it can carry out no constitutional changes without opposition support.

Rajapakse called the snap election after his party suffered a sharp drop in support in September's local elections.

The president remains largely popular with voters from the Sinhalese majority after he won a 37-year war against Tamil separatists in 2009, but his support has eroded among minority parties, which usually hold the balance of power.

Critics say he has become increasingly authoritarian.

Both ministers who exited the ruling party's ranks Wednesday are from the minority Tamil Hindu community.

At an opposition press conference they vowed to topple Rajapakse, who has been in office since 2005 and is South Asia's longest-serving leader.

"We are not alone," Digambaram told reporters. "We bring with us about 150,000 of our supporters." The ministers' departures reduced the ruling party's strength in parliament to 148 seats, down from 161 when Rajapakse called the election last month.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report this week Rajapakse was facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from his former health minister Sirisena, who has secured wide opposition support.

"The sudden emergence of a strong opposition candidate caught many, including President Rajapakse, by surprise," the ICG said.

It warned the election could turn ugly and called for the international community to send monitors to observe the campaign and deter any violence.

There has been election-related violence in Sri Lanka in previous polls.

But private monitors have voiced concern about police inaction this time in dealing with attacks against opposition activists, and suggest the post-election situation could be more serious.

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