Colombo (AFP) - Sri Lanka's ruling party was set for a purge Saturday after a senior minister declared he was challenging President Mahinda Rajapakse in snap elections called for January.
Rajapakse's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) suspended members who pledged support for health minister Maithripala Sirisena who on Friday defected and became the main opposition leader to run against the president.
The five senior party members, including Sirisena, the long-standing general secretary of the SLFP, were stripped of their posts, the government information department said.
"About a dozen MPs (in the SLFP) have been identified as potential defectors," an official close to President Rajapakse said, asking not to be named. "Action will be taken against them," he added.
But to kick out the dissidents, they will have to be formally expelled from the ruling party.
The official said a new party general secretary had been appointed and changes were being made at the regional level to repair damage caused by the dissidents to the party's operations.
Sirisena, 63, accused his former boss of running a corrupt and dictatorial administration and said he was confident of toppling him.
"He projects himself as virtuous, but he leads a dictatorial regime," said Sirisena, who also accused the president of nepotism and corruption.
- 'Many more' to jump ship -
Fisheries minister Rajitha Senaratne, who is supporting Sirisena, said the ruling party was split and he expected "many more" to jump ship.
"The SLFP is divided. They can't suspend or sack us from the party without due process," Senaratne told AFP.
"There will be more MPs joining our campaign to restore democracy and rule of law."
However, he said the dissidents were unlikely to block the national budget which comes up for a final parliamentary vote on Monday.
"The budget contained some concessions to the people and we don't want to block that," Senaratne said.
Rajapakse, who is also the finance minister, had raised salaries, reduced taxes and slashed utility tariffs before announcing on Thursday that he will seek an unprecedented third term as president -- a move only made possible after he pushed through constitutional changes.
He called the election two years ahead of schedule in an apparent bid to seek a fresh mandate before his party's popularity tumbles further after dropping over 21 percent in September local elections.
While Rajapakse remains generally popular with majority-Sinhalese voters after he oversaw the end of a 37-year war against Tamil separatists in 2009, critics say he has become increasingly authoritarian.
A key coalition partner, the JHU, or party of Buddhist monks, walked out of the government on Tuesday, accusing Rajapakse of failing to deliver promised democratic reforms.
Rajapakse had believed the United National Party would field a candidate, but Sirisena's entry took him by surprise as did the unity displayed by the one-time fractured opposition party.
The contest is taking place against a backdrop of growing international pressure over the Rajapakse administration's human rights record.
Rajapakse is struggling to avoid international censure over claims his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians in the bloody finale of the fighting, an issue that has overshadowed his ongoing chairmanship of the Commonwealth.