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Sri Lankan leader’s party downplays defection

November 22, 2014

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — The largest party in Sri Lanka’s ruling coalition on Saturday downplayed the defection of its No. 2 that pits him against the country’s president in January’s election.

Sri Lanka Freedom Party official and Cabinet minister Nimal Siripala de Silva said that the party’s base was not shaken by the defection of Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, and that the split would not diminish President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s chances to be elected for a third term.

“This incident will not shake the support base of our party and in any way adversely affect President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory,” he told reporters.

Sirisena, general secretary of the Freedom Party, left the government Friday with three other ministers and a lawmaker to be the presidential candidate of a combined opposition in the Jan. 8 election. He accused Rajapaksa of taking the country toward autocracy and of corruption and nepotism.

The split is the biggest ever challenge to Rajapaksa since he was first elected in 2005.

Rajapaksa has called an early election two years before his second term ends amid a slide in public support. The election call is seen an attempt to prevent defeat if the poll was held according to schedule.

Rajapaksa was re-elected to office in 2010 riding a wave of popularity for defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels and ending a 25-year civil war. He made use of overwhelming strength in Parliament that same year to change the constitution, scrapping a two-year term for presidents and giving himself more powers that he used to fill the judiciary and other offices with his appointees.

Sirisena has pledged that he will abolish the executive presidential system that is being criticized for giving too much power to its holder with too little accountability.

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