NEW DELHI: The run up to the snap elections called by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse in January -- two years ahead of schedule -- are heating up, with a key minister and his minority Muslim party quitting the coalition government on Monday. Although Rajapakse, first elected President in 2005 and now seeking an unprecedented third term, remains the front-runner the defections will serve a setback to his re-election hopes.

Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, leader of the All Ceylon Muslim Congress, said that he was switching allegiance to Maithripala Sirisena, the main opposition candidate who was a Health minister in Rajapakse’s cabinet. Sirisena, widely perceived to have been the ‘Number 2’ in Rajapakse’s party, quit the government a day after the elections were announced and declared his candidacy.

Bathiudeen explained his switch by alleging that Rajapakse had failed to restrain radical Buddhist groups involved in attacks on mosques, churches and businesses run by religious minorities in the Buddhist-majority country. "I asked the president to stop these religious hate attacks, but he failed to take action against offenders," Bathiudeen told reporters in Colombo.

Although Muslims, the second largest minority in Sri Lanka after Hindu Tamils, account for only 10 percent of the electorate -- they could be a key vote bank if the Sinhalese vote is split, given that both Rajapakse and Sirisena are members of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community.

The country’s main party of Buddhist monks, the Sri Lankan National Heritage Party (JHU), pledged support to Sirisena, delivering a blow to Rajapakse, who has the support of the Bodu Bala Sena or the Buddhist Force.

The JHU was one of the first political forces to raise fears of violence, saying that President Rajapakse’s regime may resort to violence to maintain political authority. "This election has the potential to be one of the most violent," said the JHU's Udaya Gammanpila, a former provincial minister.

The warnings are not unfounded. There have already been five non-fatal shootings. The private election monitoring group -- the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) -- records at least eight serious poll-related incidents since Rajapakse called the elections two weeks ago. "About half a dozen people have been admitted to hospital and many more had been hurt in clashes unleashed by government supporters," CAFFE director Keerthi Tennakoon told AFP, adding, "The unique feature is that police have failed to arrest a single person in connection with these attacks although CCTV and photographic evidence had been provided on the perpetrators.”

Allegations that government employees are posturing for Rajapakse -- an act that is illegal under Sri Lankan law -- also abound.

A few days ago, the opposition accused the army of deploying soldiers for poll-related campaigning for Rajapakse. Mangala Samaraweera, joint opposition media spokesperson, accused the Commander-in-Chief of the Sri Lankan army, Daya Ratnayake of deploying troops to campaign for Rajapakse, adding that the action was in violation of election laws. “The deployment of soldiers for such political work is destroying the dignity of the uniform," Samaraweera said. The spokesperson alleged that the military had included Rajapakse’s election leaflets in the soldiers’ pay packets, a charge that the army denied as "baseless and extremely presumptuous."

Rajapakse, who came to power in 2005 when Sri Lanka was embroiled in a decades long civil war, enjoys widespread popularity because of his success in defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. The feat ensured that he was re-elected with a wide margin in 2010.

Since then, however, allegations of corruption and nepotism have sprung up. Two weeks after Rajapakse was re-elected, the losing candidate -- a leading general in the fight against the LTTE -- was jailed. The government took legal action against the opposition and critics, and reports on the curtailment of press freedom continue to pour in.

Rajapakse also appointed his two brothers to head major government ministries and his cousins as ambassadors to key countries, including Russia and the United States. Another brother was appointed Speaker of Parliament.

Perhaps because of the perceived attempt at concentration of power, Rajapakse’s share of votes plunged in the by-elections and provincial elections earlier this year. The decision to announce the elections two years ahead of schedule is linked to this, with Rajapakse gambling on the belief that he stands a better chance of being re-elected now, as opposed to waiting for two years and risking a further decline in support.

The political environment however, got more complicated with Sirisena’s candidacy. The joint opposition has since agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding. If Sirisena wins, Sri Lanka’s Presidential system will be replaced by a parliamentary system within one hundred days. The 18th amendment to the constitution will be appealed -- meaning that crucial institutions such as the police and judiciary will regain their independence. The 18th amendment, passed in 2010, also eliminated presidential term limits, allowing Rajapakse to run for a third term.

Sirisena has made an effort to distance himself perceptions of corruption and nepotism that have come to be associated with the governing party. Announcing a series of reforms, Sirisena has vowed to stop Sri Lanka from “moving towards a dictatorship.” He has also raised issues such as the rising cost of living, wages, corruption, the rule of law, and the welfare state.

However, despite these factors, the election still remains Rajapakse’s to lose.