Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

'Terminator' Rajapaksa wins Sri Lanka presidential election

Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised greater security to allay fears raised by Easter Day bombings

Sri Lanka's president-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to supporters as he leaves his house in Colombo on November 17, 2019. Reuters
Sri Lanka's president-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to supporters as he leaves his house in Colombo on November 17, 2019. Reuters

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who led the crushing of Sri Lanka's Tamil insurgency 10 years ago, stormed to victory on Sunday in the country's presidential election.

Mr Rajapaksa, 70, conducted a nationalist campaign with a promise of security and a vow to crush religious extremism in the Buddhist-majority country after suicide bombings by an extremist group killed 269 people on Easter Sunday.

But his win will alarm Sri Lanka's Tamil and Muslim minorities, as well as activists, journalists and possibly some in the international community after the 2005-2015 presidency of his older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The former president, with his brother Gotabaya effectively running the security forces as defence secretary, ended a three-decade civil war with Tamil separatists in a campaign internationally condemned for reported human rights abuses.

His decade in power was also marked by extrajudicial killings of critics and journalists, and closer ties with China.

Mr Rajapaksa, a retired lieutenant colonel nicknamed the "Terminator" by his family, won Saturday's election with 52.25 per cent of the vote, according to final official results announced by the election commission.

Supporters of Gotabaya Rajapaksa celebrate in Colombo after he was declared winner of Sri Lanka's presidential election. Reuters
Supporters of Gotabaya Rajapaksa celebrate in Colombo after he was declared winner of Sri Lanka's presidential election. Reuters

His main rival among a record 35 candidates, the moderate Sajith Premadasa of the ruling party, trailed on 41.99 per cent.

Mr Premadasa, 52, conceded the race and congratulated his rival, who is to be sworn in on Monday.

Turnout in the election was 83.7 per cent. The results showed that Mr Premadasa received strong support in minority Tamil areas but fared poorly in Sri Lanka's Sinhalese heartland, a core support base where Mr Rajapaksa won about two thirds of the vote.

Saturday's poll was the first popularity test of the United National Party government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Mr Wickremesinghe's administration failed to prevent the April 21 bombings despite prior and detailed intelligence warnings from India, a parliamentary investigation found.

On Sunday three Cabinet members resigned, including Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

Mr Premadasa also offered better security and a pledge to make a former war general, Sarath Fonseka, his national security chief, projecting himself as a victim seeking to crush terrorism.

He is a son of the former president Ranasinghe Premadasa who was killed by a Tamil rebel suicide bomber in May 1993.

But Mr Rajapaksa is adored by the Sinhalese majority and the powerful Buddhist clergy for ending the Tamil insurgency in 2009.

He denies accusations of overseeing "death squads" responsible for extrajudicial killings during his brother's presidency.

The Rajapaksa brothers are detested and feared by many Tamils, who make up 15 per cent of the population.

Members of the Muslim community, who make up 10 per cent, are also fearful of a backlash after mob violence following the bomb attacks, which were claimed by ISIS.

Under Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka borrowed heavily from China for infrastructure projects and even allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo in 2014, alarming western countries as well as India, China's regional rival.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Sunday that India looked forward to "deepening the close and fraternal ties" with Sri Lanka and working towards "peace, prosperity and security in our region".

Unlike in 2015 when there were bomb attacks and shootings, this election was peaceful by the standards of Sri Lankan politics.

The only major incident was on Saturday when gunmen fired at two vehicles in a convoy of at least 100 buses taking Muslim voters to cast ballots. Two people were injured.

But the election commission said the contest was the worst ever for hate speech and misinformation.

Updated: November 18, 2019 04:47 AM

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