Sat, Nov 19, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Rajapakse wins narrow victory

`DULY ELECTED' Sri Lanka's socialist prime minister has won the presidency over former premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, thanks in part to a boycott by the Tamil Tigers

AGENCIES , COLOMBO

Sri Lanka's elections chief yesterday formally declared socialist Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse the duly elected president of the island-state.

"The prime minister, under the election act ... is duly elected as president of Sri Lanka," said elections commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake.

Rajapakse, who was celebrating his 60th birthday yesterday, won the presidency with 50.33 percent of the popular vote, according to results released by Dissanayake's office.

The results showed the prime minister received 4.88 million votes, narrowly beating his nearest rival, right-wing former premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, who garnered 4.71 million votes.

Thursday's poll was seen as a referendum on how to rescue the island's faltering peace process and tsunami-hit economy, but a Tamil Tiger boycott helped the hawkish Rajapakse by keeping away ethnic Tamil voters expected to back opposition leader Wickremesinghe.

"The prime minister's election office is announcing that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse has won the election for the fifth executive president of the country," Rajapakse's media secretary said.

"The Prime Minister's office requests everyone to peacefully celebrate this people's victory," the statement added. A senior party official from Wickremesinghe's camp conceded defeat.

Sri Lanka's stock market plunged over 6 percent on the news.

"The market had been going up expecting a [Wickremesinghe] victory which didn't come through, so this is what we've ended up with," said Harsha Fernando, CEO of brokerage SC Securities in Colombo.

"There have not been any clear economic policies put forward, they are talking of not going ahead with privatizations with [Marxists] playing a key role," he added.

Violence erupted again in the troubled east. At least three people were killed and more than a dozen wounded in Akkaraipattu when two hand grenades were thrown into a mosque during dawn prayers, police said, blaming Tiger rebels. Another body was found by the roadside outside the eastern town of Batticaloa, hands tied behind his head. Police said he was probably a victim of factional fighting between rebels.

Left-winger Rajapakse has allied himself with hardline Marxists and nationalists from the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority who detest the Tigers. He rejects the rebels' demand for a separate homeland for minority Tamils, wants to tighten the terms of a 2002 truce that halted two decades of civil war and pledges a "national economy," which some investors fear is code for protectionism.

Right-winger Wickremesinghe, who brokered the ceasefire, had been seen as best placed to reach a lasting peace deal and was market-favorite because of his free-market policies. But the poll underscored the deep divisions in the country surrounding the peace process.

Ironically, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) appeared to undermine the conciliatory Wickremesinghe who had pledged to offer them far more autonomy than Rajapakse. Analysts say the rebels are in no hurry to reach a final peace deal, instead using the truce to regroup and play a longer game towards a separate homeland for the mainly Hindu Tamils.

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