Sri Lanka’s chance to start again

Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, president of Sri Lanka, has been re-elected. Mr. Rajapaksa’s victory was expected following the government’s victory last year over the Tamil Tigers, ending a 26-year insurgency. Peace on the island opens the door to long-delayed economic development, a key to enduring stability. But peace also requires reconciliation and the creation of a government that represents all of Sri Lanka’s citizens. It is not yet clear if the Tamil minority will escape their status as second-class citizens.

Sri Lanka’s sixth presidential election was the first not to be overshadowed by war. It is only a little ironic, then, that the two leading candidates, Mr. Rajapaksa and Mr. Sarath Fonseka, a retired army general, both ran on their war records. Mr. Fonseka led the military operation against the Tamil Tigers. To distinguish himself from his commander in chief, Mr. Fonseka courted the Tamil vote, arguing that he would heal the ethnic divisions that have long poisoned Sri Lankan politics. He appealed to the Sinhalese majority by denouncing the concentration of power in the president’s family — one brother is the secretary of defense, another is a senior adviser and others work in senior government posts. That criticism is especially biting in a country where the annual cost of corruption is estimated at more than $3 billion — a substantial amount for an economy of $40.7 billion.

Mr. Rajapaksa prevailed by a substantial margin — he is estimated to have won 58 percent of the popular vote, with Mr. Fonseka attracting 40 percent.

Mr. Fonseka has denounced the election as rigged. Independent Sri Lankan monitors conceded there were isolated incidents of violence, but they found no evidence of systematic fraud. Other observers acknowledged the advantage enjoyed by the incumbent, who used state resources for his campaign and was able to restrict contenders’ presence in state-run media. The elections commissioner, Mr. Dayananda Dissanayake, concluded that “state institutions operated in a manner not befitting state organizations.” After the vote, Mr. Fonseka’s hotel was surrounded by troops; he said he feared for his life, while the army said they were there to protect him.

Mr. Rajapaksa was always going to be hard to beat. His military success provided a powerful platform; he was unlikely to be successfully challenged by a man who had acted as the instrument of his authority. Moreover, campaigning by Mr. Fonseka as the lesser of two evils was not going to appeal to Sri Lanka’s long-suffering Tamils. Many former backers of the Tamil Tigers did support him, but only grudgingly.

The president’s authority is now strengthened, and he insists that a man strong enough to defeat the Tigers is a man able to get Sri Lanka back on track economically. He has his work cut out for him. The economy has expanded steadily for the past few years, and grew just under 4 percent in 2009. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka needs sustained growth of 7-8 percent annually to absorb new entrants into the job force and decrease poverty, which now touches about 15 percent of the population.

The country was hit hard by the global recession, with exports falling and remittances from Sri Lankans living overseas also declining. Mr. Rajapaksa’s campaign manifesto says he will maintain 8 percent growth, double per capita income from $2,000 to $4,000, and turn the country into a regional aviation, naval, financial and knowledge hub. The foundation of that transition is a pledge to spend $4 billion, nearly 10 percent of the country’s wealth, on building roads, rail lines and power plants in the northern regions that suffered most damage in the civil war.

His success will ultimately depend not only on fulfilling that plan, but reaching out to the Tamil community to ensure that their political needs are met. Sri Lanka is a deeply divided society. It was their treatments as second-class citizens that drove the Tamil minority to wage a bloody civil war that claimed more than 100,000 lives, the majority of them Tamil. Having won the war, the government must now reach out to the Tamils, promote genuine reconciliation and heal the wounds. Thus far, there has been little progress on that front.

Turnout among Tamil voters was low. The overwhelming majority of those who did cast ballots did so for Mr. Fonseka. To win credibility and trust, Mr. Rajapaksa must now embrace moderate Tamil politicians, who form a potentially potent force that previously was silenced by the Tamil Tigers. Just as importantly, however, the president must reject the belligerent Sinhalese nationalism that has alienated the Tamils. Mr. Rajapaksa must govern as a president for all Sri Lankans, not just for those of his own ethnicity.

He has said that he understands these challenges, and will strive to meet them. His record to date is spotty but his re-election offers him the opportunity to begin anew. The rest of the world must support him by providing aid and investment while demanding that he distribute it equally among his citizens.