A family of strongmen who tilted Sri Lanka toward a deep reliance on China claimed victory in a tightly-fought presidential election, as voting showed the country remains divided down ethnic lines.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa had 51.7 percent of votes with about 90 percent of the polling divisions reporting, while ruling alliance candidate Sajith Premadasa trailed with 42.6 percent, according to state-run television.
Premadasa, 52, conceded defeat and congratulated Rajapaksa. There were a record 35 candidates in the election.
The support of the minority Tamil and Muslim voters, who together form about 25 percent of the country’s population, was crucial for Premadasa. He won large majorities in the Tamil-dominated north, while Rajapaksa, 70, secured his win by capturing votes in the Sinhala-Buddhist southern provinces.
“The early results look like it’s going to leave Sri Lanka very polarized, especially on the north-south divide,” said Akhil Bery, a South Asia analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group. “It’s incumbent on Gotabaya to prove that he can bridge the gap, but past indicators make it unlikely.”
“There is a genuine sense of fear about what a Gotabaya presidency means for minorities, and it will be up to him to show that he is indeed looking to the future and healing the wounds of the past,” Bery said.
Rajapaksa, a former defense secretary, made national security his key campaign platform. He rode the tide of growing disillusionment that grew after the deadly Easter attacks that killed more than 250 people in April and highlighted the security failures of the present government.
His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure in office — between 2005 and 2015 — saw a marked deterioration in democracy, in particular press freedom, said Katharine Adeney, director of the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute, who specializes in South Asia politics and ethnic conflict.
“It’s likely that Gotabaya will have learnt the lessons of the 2015 defeat — that he needs to be careful not to alienate the majority Sinhalese by undermining the democratic process too much — but there are real concerns about the fate of minorities, both Muslims and Tamils, under his leadership,” Adeney said.
Premadasa was part of the ruling alliance that took power four years ago, vowing to push for greater democracy, more transparent finances and an independent foreign policy with improved ties with India and the US.
While he had promised reconciliation measures to help the country heal from the wounds of the civil war, his party faced a credibility crisis after the security lapses that led to the Easter attacks on churches and hotels.
“We have just witnessed the most peaceful presidential election in the history of our independent republic,” Premadasa said in his concession statement. “This was a result of the democratic gains and institutional reforms that have taken place over the last five years, that empowered an independent elections commission and restored the rule of law.”
He appealed to Rajapaksa to “strengthen and protect the democratic institutions and values that enabled” his victory. Premadasa also said he was stepping down as deputy leader of the United National Party, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
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