Asia-Pacific

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, nicknamed 'the Terminator', wins Sri Lanka election

Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to his supporters in Homagama, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka Source: AP

Former Sri Lankan defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa has won the country's presidential election. He ran a nationalist campaign with a promise of security and vows to crush religious extremism.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who spearheaded the brutal crushing of the Tamil Tigers 10 years ago, stormed to victory Sunday in Sri Lanka's presidential elections seven months after Islamist extremist attacks killed 269 people.

The retired lieutenant colonel, nicknamed the "Terminator" by his own family, won 52.25 per cent of the vote, his spokesman said as Mr Rajapaksa's main rival Sajith Premadasa of the ruling party conceded the race.

"It is a clear win. We envisaged it. We are very happy that Gota will be the next president. He will be sworn in tomorrow or the day after," spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said.

Mr Rajapaksa, 70, is the younger brother of the charismatic, but controversial Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was president from 2005-15.

Election Commission chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said at least 80 percent of the 15.99 million eligible voters participated in Saturday's poll, which was marred by isolated violence that left several people injured.

Mr Rajapaksa conducted a nationalist campaign with a promise of security and a vow to crush religious extremism in the Buddhist-majority country following the 21 April suicide bomb attacks blamed on a homegrown jihadi group.

Three luxury hotels and three churches were targeted in the coordinated bombings. IS too claimed responsibility for the attack which left 45 foreigners dead.

Saturday's poll was the first popularity test of the United National Party (UNP) government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who stepped aside and allowed his deputy, Mr Premadasa, to stand in the election.

Intelligence failure

Mr Wickremesinghe's administration faced severe criticism for failing to prevent the attacks despite prior warnings from an intelligence agency of neighbouring India, according to findings of a parliamentary investigation.

Mr Premadasa also offered better security and a pledge to make a former war general, Sarath Fonseka, his national security chief and projected himself as a victim seeking to crush terrorism.

He is the son of assassinated ex-president Ranasinghe Premadasa who fell victim to a Tamil rebel suicide bomber in May 1993.

Security personnel escort Sri Lankan polling officers carrying election materials as they leave for their polling booths.
Security personnel escort Sri Lankan polling officers carrying election materials as they leave for their polling booths.
EPA

Mr Gotabaya is credited with directing security forces to crush Tamil rebels and end a 37-year separatist war in May 2009 during the tenure of his elder brother Mahinda, who was president from 2005 to 2015.

The Rajapaksas are adored by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority, as well as the powerful Buddhist clergy, for defeating Tamil Tiger separatists and ending a 37-year civil war in 2009.

But they are detested and feared by many Tamils, who make up 15 percent of the population. The conflict ended with some 40,000 Tamil civilians allegedly killed by the army.

Some in the Muslim community, who make up 10 percent of the population, are also fearful of Gotabaya becoming president, having faced days of mob violence in the wake of the April attacks.

Under his brother, Mr 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.

During that time Sri Lanka also borrowed heavily from China for infrastructure projects and even allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo in 2014, alarming Western countries as well as India.

The projects ballooned Sri Lanka's debts and many turned into white elephants - such as an airport in the south devoid of airlines - mired in corruption allegations.

China also offered Sri Lanka "international diplomatic protection" against criticism for its rights record, analyst Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu told AFP.

The aftermath of the Easter bombing attacks inside St. Sebastian's Church, Negombo, north of Colombo.
The aftermath of the Easter bombing attacks inside St. Sebastian's Church, Negombo, north of Colombo.
AP

The Rajapaksas "spent and spent without giving any consideration to how it has to be paid back".

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 voters from the Muslim minority to vote. Two people were injured.

It brings to a close an election campaign, that according to the Election Commission, was the worst ever for hate speech and misinformation.

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