SLPP supporters take to the streets of Colombo on Nov. 18 to celebrate the election triumph of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s seventh president later in the day. (Photo: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)
Former wartime defense secretary Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been elected the seventh president of Sri Lanka.
A member of the controversial Rajapaksa family, his return to power came as voters put their faith in someone with a “hard man” reputation restoring security in a country still reeling from the deadly Easter Sunday attacks.
Gotabaya, brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, secured victory with 52.25 percent of votes cast in the election held on Nov. 16.
He called for people to celebrate his triumph peacefully with dignity and discipline. “As we usher in a new journey for Sri Lanka, we must remember that all Sri Lankans are part of this journey,” he tweeted.
Mahinda claimed his brother’s victory was due to people losing patience with the previous government over its failure to secure justice for the Easter Sunday attacks and restore the rule of law.
He said the country’s economy and constitution would be completely reformed according to his party’s campaign pledges.
Gotabaya, who retired from the army and emigrated to the United States and became a citizen of the country, had to withdraw his dual citizenship in accordance with the constitution in order to stand for the presidency. He received several awards for gallantry during his military service.
Brothers and wartime heroes
In 2005, Gotabaya became defense secretary following the appointment of his brother as president and the two men played key roles in ending the country’s 26-year civil war by defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, in 2009. He also survived a suicide bombing by the LTTE in Colombo in 2006.
Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is led by former president Mahinda, who nominated his younger brother Gotabaya as its presidential candidate on Aug. 11.
A record 35 candidates stood in the election, among them two Buddhist monks, four Muslims, two Tamils and one woman.
Election Commission president Mahinda Deshapriya announced Gotabaya as the country’s seventh president late on Nov. 17.
He said Gotabaya had received 6,924,255 votes (52.25 percent), followed by Sajith Premadasa, the candidate for the Democratic Front, who received 5,564,239 votes (41.99 percent) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake with 418,553 votes (3.16 percent). More than 15.9 million people were eligible to vote.
“We thank all the presidential candidates and others for the opportunity to have a peaceful election,” said Deshapriya. “However, I regret not being able to control the state and private media.”
Justice for church victims
The election campaign focused on the theme of national security in the wake of the April 21 attacks, when a group of nine suicide bombers affiliated with local Islamist extremist group National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) blasted three churches and three luxury hotels, killing 259 people, including 40 foreign nationals, and injuring at least 500.
SLPP candidate Gotabaya vowed to appoint an independent commission under his leadership to help secure justice for the victims.
Catholic bishops had pleaded for a free and fair election and urged all citizens to carefully exercise their sacred and democratic right to vote.
Bishops said the new government would need to formulate national policies regarding religious freedom, security, health, education, the economy and responsible management of natural resources. It should show it was also focused on serving future generations to ensure the country’s sustainable development.
In his concession speech, ruling party candidate Premadasa congratulated Gotabaya for his victory and said he was resigning as deputy leader of the United National Party (UNP).
The poll was not without some issues, however. Some buses transporting Muslims to election stations on Nov. 16 were attacked to prevent them from voting in the northwest town of Puttalam.
Father Jude Krishantha, a spokesman for Colombo Archdiocese, had also warned that some people purporting to be clergy during the campaign were impostors and voters should be careful who they listened to.
“The claim that the archbishop had given his support to any presidential candidate is an absolute lie — he has not supported any candidates during the election,” said Father Krishantha.
Gotabaya was sworn in at the Ruwanweli Maha Seya, one of the most respected Buddhist religious places in Anuradhapura, on Nov. 18.