Colombo: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who spearheaded the brutal crushing of the Tamil Tigers a decade ago, stormed to power on Sunday but promised to be a President for all Sri Lanka’s races and religions after a divisive election.
Seven months after Islamist extremist attacks that killed 269 people, Mr Rajapaksa was elected Saturday on the back of a nationalist campaign promising security and to crush religious extremism in the Buddhist-majority country. This also marks the return of the powerful Rajapaksa dynasty known for its pro-China tilt.
Mr Rajapaksa’s triumph will alarm Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim minorities as well as activists, journalists and possibly some in the international community following the 2005-15 presidency of his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa. On Sunday Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, thanked all voters in an election that heightened ethnic and religious tensions in a country that only a decade ago emerged from a brutal civil war that cost 100,000 lives. “I am conscious that I am also the President of those who voted against me,” he said as he was formally declared the hands-down winner with 52.25 per cent of the vote.
“It is my duty to serve all Sri Lankans without race or religious discrimination,” he said. “I promise to discharge my duties in a fair manner.”
Mr Premadasa, 52, of the ruling party, conceded the race and congratulated Mr Rajapaksa and urged him to implement his manifesto promising tax cuts, free food rations and subsidies to farmers.
Mr Rajapaksa, who will succeed President Maithripala Sirisena for a five-year term, will be sworn in as the seventh executive President of Sri Lanka on Monday at the ancient north-central Buddhist pilgrim town of Anuradhapura. The turnout in Saturday’s vote was 83.7 per cent.
The election results showed that minority Tamil and Muslim communities had overwhelmingly voted for ruling party candidate Sajith Premadasa, who came a distant second with 41.99 per cent of the vote.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, with Gotabaya — nicknamed the “Terminator” by his own family — effectively running the security forces, ended a 37-year civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. His decade in power was also marked by alleged rights abuses, murky extra-judicial killings and closer ties with China.
“I didn’t sleep all night,” said student Devni, 22, one of around 30 people who gathered outside Mr Rajapaksa’s Colombo residence. “I am so excited, he is the President we need.”
Saturday’s election was the first popularity test of the United National Party (UNP) government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, under intense pressure from his Cabinet colleagues to step down, is expected to do so shortly. Mr Wickremesinghe, whose administration failed to prevent the April attacks despite prior, detailed intelligence warnings from India, cannot be removed unless he steps down. On Sunday three Cabinet members quit, including finance minister Mangala Samaraweera.
Mr Premadasa is the son of assassinated ex-President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who fell victim to an LTTE suicide bomber in May 1993.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is adored by the Sinhalese majority and the powerful Buddhist clergy for how he and Mahinda ended the war in 2009, when 40,000 Tamil civilians allegedly perished at the hands of the Sri Lankan Army.
Under his brother, Gotabaya was defence secretary and effectively ran the security forces, allegedly overseeing “death squads” that bumped off rivals, journalists and others. He denies the allegations.
This makes the brothers detested and feared among many Tamils, who make up 15 per cent of the population. Some in the Muslim community — who make up 10 per cent — are also fearful of Gotabaya, having faced days of mob violence in the wake of the April attacks.
Under Mahinda, Sri Lanka also borrowed heavily from China for infrastructure projects and even allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo in 2014, alarming India and many Western countries. On Sunday, he vowed to “restore relations” with Beijing.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Sunday that India looked forward to “deepening the close and fraternal ties... and for peace, prosperity as well as the security in our region”. Mr Rajapaksa thanked the people of India and Prime Minister Modi, saying he looks forward to meeting him soon “to further our friendly bilateral relations”.
Unlike in 2015 when there were bomb attacks and shootings, this election was relatively peaceful by the standards of Sri Lanka’s fiery 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. According to the Election Commission the contest was, however, the worst ever for hate speech and misinformation.