Asia Pacific / Politics

Tamil-taming, China-friendly Rajapaksa clan make presidential comeback in Sri Lanka

Bloomberg, AFP-JIJI

A family of strongmen who tilted Sri Lanka toward a deep reliance on China claimed victory on Sunday in a tightly fought presidential election.

With two-thirds of the polling divisions declared, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, 70, whose brother Mahinda had close ties with Beijing during his 10-year rule, had almost 52 percent. The candidate of the ruling alliance, Sajith Premadasa, was trailing with 42 percent. The rest was split among the other 33 of the record 35 candidates.

“We are claiming victory!” said Milinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s spokesman and a member of the Colombo municipal council for the Podujana Peramuna. “Other than north and east, everywhere we have won.”

The ruling alliance had promised more freedom but failed to avert terrorist attacks that killed more than 250 people in April.

Harsha de Silva, economic reform minister in the current government, conceded defeat on behalf of the Premadasa camp. “We have lost this election — this country’s message is very clear,” De Silva said. “Obviously the Sinhala Buddhist majority is saying we only want racist rule. This country is doomed.”

Akhil Bery, an analyst at the risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said: “The early results looks like it’s going to leave Sri Lanka very polarized, especially on the north-south divide. It’s incumbent on Gotabhaya to prove that he can bridge the gap, but past indicators make it unlikely. There is a genuine sense of fear about what a Gotabhaya 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.”

Rajapaksa represents the nationalist Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party. The former defense secretary has made national security his key campaign platform, riding a tide of growing disillusionment that grew after the deadly Easter attacks highlighted the security failures of the present government.

Premadasa is also from a prominent political dynasty.

The ruling alliance 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 U.S.

The choices for voters were stark. A Rajapaksa presidency could take the island nation back toward greater authoritarianism and abuse of power and an era of impunity for human rights abuses and corruption.

His brother’s tenure in office saw a marked deterioration in democracy, in particular press freedom, said Katharine Adeney, director of the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute. “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 in an email.

Under Mahinda, 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.

Premadasa has pledged to reduce import duties, reform taxes and state-owned enterprises and open up the economy for foreign investment. He has also promised reconciliation measures to help the country heal from the wounds of the civil war. But his party faces a credibility crisis after the security lapses that led to the Easter attacks on churches and hotels.

The winner of Sri Lanka’s election inherits a country with an economy where growth has slowed to a five-year low of 1.6 percent in the quarter ended June, and which has a debt level hovering at 83 percent of GDP.

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