Sri Lankan police Monday arrested a leading dissident within president Maithripala Sirisena’s party, deepening political tensions on the island after the head of state suspended parliament.
Mahindananda Aluthgamage, a former sports minister, was held over 39 million rupees ($260,000) that were allegedly misappropriated in 2014, police said in a statement.
He was accused of spending government money to buy sports goods, which were handed out in a bid to get support for former president Mahinda Rajapakse ahead of a national election. The items included 14,000 boards for the popular South Asian game of carrom.
Aluthgamage is a key figure in a faction that opposes Sirisena within his socialist Sri Lanka Freedom Party. The party has been in an uneasy coalition with the right-wing United National Party of prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe since 2015.
There was no immediate comment from Aluthgamage’s faction which is led by Rajapakse who was in power for nearly a decade till he was defeated by Sirisena in 2015.
The former sports minister’s arrest is seen by senior party members as a blow to the Rajapakse-faction which controls a majority of SLFP MPs.
The two factions within the SLFP tried to unite earlier this month by introducing a no-confidence motion against the prime minister who comfortably defeated it.
The failure to topple the prime minister led to serious recriminations within the SLFP.
Six SLFP ministers resigned last week after voting against the prime minister and political sources say they are about to formally join the Rajapakse-faction, further weakening Sirisena’s hold on his party.
Sirisena halted parliament’s session on Saturday until May 8 to give him more time for political maneuvering, official sources said .
Apart from facing a party revolt, Sirisena also faces mounting troubles with prime minister Wickremesinghe.
Tensions have heightened since Sirisena’s faction and Wickremesinghe’s UNP suffered major losses in local elections in February. Rajapakse was the big winner in the election.
In recent weeks, Sirisena has reduced Wickremesinghe’s powers over the central bank, policy making institutions and other bodies.
Sirisena is expected to reshuffle his cabinet on his return from the Commonwealth summit in London this week.
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