Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defence secretary, will be Sri Lanka’s next president after election results on Sunday showed he had defeated the ruling party’s candidate Sajith Premadasa by more than 13 lakh votes, PTI reported. Rajapaksa won 69.24 lakh votes, while Premadasa got 55.64 lakh votes, official results showed.
Earlier in the day, Rajapaksa had claimed victory and Premadasa, the housing minister in the United National Party government, had conceded defeat. Rajapaksa, 70, will succeed President Maithripala Sirisena.
About 16 million citizens were eligible to vote in Saturday’s elections. About 80% of them turned up to cast their votes and choose from among 35 candidates on the ballot, including Rajapaksa of the opposition Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (or Sri Lanka People’s Party) and Premadasa.
Rajapaksa’s spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella told AFP earlier in the day that he will be sworn in on Monday or the day after.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Rajapaksa. “I look forward to working closely with you for deepening close and fraternal ties between our two countries and citizens, and for peace, prosperity as well as security in our region,” he tweeted.
Rajapaksa is the brother of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. After the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, he was charged with human rights offences – allegations that he has denied. His campaign focused on national security. Among the Sinhalese majority, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is considered a national hero for orchestrating the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 and bringing an end to the 26-year-long armed conflict. However, he remains deeply unpopular among the Tamil and Muslim communities.
Premadasa said it was his privilege to “honour the people’s decision” and congratulated Rajapaksa. “I am grateful to our citizens who voted for me,” he wrote on Twitter. “I am humbled that you placed your faith in me. Your support has been a fountain of strength throughout my political career.”
He observed that Sri Lanka had witnessed its “most peaceful presidential election” and attributed it to the “democratic gains and institutional reforms” of his government over the past five years. “My appeal to the incoming President is that he take this process forward and strengthen and protect the democratic institutions and values that enabled his peaceful election as the 7th President of Sri Lanka,” he added.
Premadasa was referring to the comparatively peaceful election process on Saturday. There were only some reports of injuries as opposed to the 2015 elections, when there were bomb attacks and shootings.
Premadasa is the son of another former president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who ruled between 1989 and 1993. He campaigned on the promise of a social revolution that included everything from eliminating poverty to universal health care to tax concessions for small- and medium-sized businesses. His core support base is in the Tamil regions.
The presidential election came at a critical time for the country. The government has been in turmoil since President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last year and replaced him with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a move that sparked a three-month constitutional crisis.
This was followed by the Easter Sunday bombings on April 21, which killed at least 253 people and sharpened tensions between majority Sinhalese and minority Muslims in the island. A harsh crackdown on the country’s Muslim minority followed.