Sri Lanka’s controversial wartime defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa will lead the country after ruling party candidate Sajith Premadasa conceded the hotly contested presidential poll on Sunday, marking the return of the powerful Rajapaksa dynasty known for its pro-China tilt, amidst security challenges following the Easter Sunday terror attacks that killed 269 people.
Rajapaksa defeated Premadasa by more than 13 lakh votes, according to the official results. He will succeed President Maithripala Sirisena for a five-year term. Rajapaksa secured 52.25 per cent votes (6,924,255) while Premadasa received 41.99 per cent of the total votes polled (5,564,239), the election commission said. Other candidates got 5.76 per cent votes. Rajapaksa, 70, urged his supporters to “rejoice peacefully”.
“As we usher in a new journey for Sri Lanka, we must remember that all Sri Lankans are part of this journey. Let us rejoice peacefully, with dignity and discipline in the same manner in which we campaigned,” the retired lieutenant colonel said in a tweet.
Oath of office on Monday
Rajapaksa had vowed to “restore relations” with Sri Lanka’s top lender, China, if he wins the election, despite international concerns over the island nation’s financial debt to the Asian superpower. He could take the oath of office on Monday, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) said. Premadasa, 52, meanwhile, was considered leaning more towards India and the US.
He conceded the presidential election to his rival even before the official results were announced and also stepped down as the Deputy Leader of the ruling United National Party (UNP) with immediate effect. “It is my privilege to honour the people’s decision and congratulate Gotabaya Rajapaksa on his election,” Premadasa said.
“I am grateful our citizens who voted for me. I am humbled that you placed your faith in me. Your support has been a fountain of strength throughout my political career,” he said on Twitter. “In light of today’s decision by the electorate, I have decided to step down as Deputy Leader of the United National Party (UNP) with immediate effect,” he said in a statement.
Rajapaksa, who was the top defence ministry bureaucrat for 10 years, swept the poll in the Sinhala majority districts while Premadasa garnered most of the votes from the Tamil dominated north and east.
PM Modi greets
Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Rajapaksa and said he looks forward to further deepen relations between the two nations. Rajapaksa thanked the people of India and Modi, saying he looks forward to strengthening the friendship and meeting him in the near future.
The turnout in the election was more than 80 per cent. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who cannot be removed unless he steps down, is expected to resign. The current Parliament cannot be dissolved at least before February next year.
It is believed that Rajapaksa, after taking over as the President, would appoint his elder brother and former strongman Mahinda as the Prime Minister. Outgoing President Sirisena had ended Mahinda’s nearly a decade-long rule in 2015.
The Rajapaska senior’s legacy of ending the Tamil separatist war has made him the darling of the Sinhala Buddhist majority. Gotabaya was his top defence ministry official who supervised the military operations against the LTTE. While doing so, he acquired the reputation of a ruthlessly efficient administrator. Rajapaksa’s victory marks the return of the family to the pinnacle of power in the island after they were surprisingly ousted in the previous presidential poll.
According to observers, with pro-China Rajapaksa winning the election, the result will have a bearing on India’s presence in the Indian Ocean region where Beijing is increasingly making inroads.
China, which has acquired Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port in 2017 as a debt swap, has been ramping up its ties with the island nation and expanded its naval presence in the Indian Ocean with an established logistics base in Djibouti. Beijing in July gifted a warship to Sri Lanka, in a growing sign of its deepening military cooperation with the strategically located island nation in the Indian Ocean.
The Lanka election took place nearly seven months after homegrown radicals pledging loyalty to the Islamic State terror group detonated suicide bombs at three churches and three posh hotels, killing 269 people, seriously hitting the tourism industry, one of the main forex earning sectors of the country.