Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a retired lieutenant colonel, nicknamed the "Terminator" by his own family, won 53-54 percent of the vote as his main rival Sajith Premadasa of the ruling party conceded the race.

A supporter of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa waving a flag walks past a cut-out placard of the Rajapaksa brothers, Gotabaya (C) and Mahinda (L), in Colombo, November 17, 2019.
A supporter of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa waving a flag walks past a cut-out placard of the Rajapaksa brothers, Gotabaya (C) and Mahinda (L), in Colombo, November 17, 2019. (AFP)

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 Daesh-inspired attacks killed 269 people.

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

His triumph will, however, alarm Sri Lanka's Tamil and Muslim minorities as well as activists, journalists and possibly some in the international community following the 2005-15 presidency of his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa's main rival among a record 35 candidates, the moderate Sajith Premadasa of the ruling party, trailed on 41.99 percent, and the 52-year-old conceded the race and congratulated Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa is due to be sworn in on Monday. Turnout was 83.7 percent.

Supporters of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa prepare to light up firecrackers to celebrate in Colombo on November 17, 2019
Supporters of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa prepare to light up firecrackers to celebrate in Colombo on November 17, 2019 (AFP)

First popularity test

Premadasa had strong support in minority Tamil areas but a poor showing in Sri Lanka's Sinhalese heartland, a core support base where Rajapaksa won some two-thirds of the vote.

Premadasa, 52, from the liberal United National Party (UNP), is the son of assassinated ex-president Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Saturday's poll was the first popularity test of the United National Party (UNP) government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Wickremesinghe's administration failed to prevent the April attacks despite prior and detailed intelligence warnings from India, according to a parliamentary investigation.

On Sunday three cabinet members resigned – including Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

Premadasa also offered better security and a pledge to make a former war general, Sarath Fonseka, his national security chief.

TRT World spoke with journalist Easwaran Rutnam, for more.

A chequered legacy

But Gotabaya is adored by the Sinhalese majority and the powerful Buddhist clergy for how he and Mahinda ended the war in 2009, when 40,000 Tamil civilians allegedly perished at the hands of the army.

Under his brother, Gotabaya was defence secretary and effectively ran the security forces, allegedly overseeing "death squads" that bumped off rivals, journalists and others. 

He denies that he was the architect of what is known as "white van abductions" when dozens of opponents were abducted never to be found again.

This makes the brothers detested and feared among many Tamils, who make up 15 percent of the population. Some in the Muslim community, who make up 10 percent, are also fearful of Gotabaya, having faced days of mob violence in the wake of the April attacks.

While Rajapaksa has no experience in politics, he makes up for it by campaigning with his charismatic older brother Mahinda.

Facing allegations of corruption and nepotism, Mahinda lost his attempt for a third term in January 2015. His bid to become prime minister in legislative elections later that year also failed.

A new constitutional amendment barred him from contesting the presidency again, leaving his brother to take up the family mantle.

Gotabhaya has brushed aside questions about war crimes during the final offensive of the Tamil war.

"Why are you talking all the time on the past? Ask (about) the future," he asked. "I am trying to become the president of the future Sri Lanka. So if you concentrate on the future, it is better."

He is on bail facing prosecution for allegedly siphoning off state cash to build a monument for his parents when his brother was president.

Gotabhaya has denied allegations that he received millions of dollars by way of kickbacks from a second-hand aircraft purchase from Ukraine in 2007. He has not been indicted but police are investigating the purchase.

He also faces a civil suit in the United States for allegedly ordering the torture of a Tamil man and several others when he was in power.

Another civil action against him in a US court in connection with the death of an anti-establishment newspaper editor in Sri Lanka in 2009 was rejected on the basis that Gotabhaya had "foreign official immunity".

Rajapaksa reportedly had dual US-Sri Lanka citizenship, which would preclude him from running for election, but he says he renounced US nationality this year so he could enter the presidential race.

However, Rajapaksa's nationality is still being investigated by a local magistrate. Due to his win, the case will be frozen until the five-year term ends.

Ballooning debt

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.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Sunday that India looked forward to "deepening the close and fraternal ties.. . and for peace, prosperity as well as security in our region".

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.

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 Muslim voters to cast ballots. Two people were injured.

According to the Election Commission the contest was, however, the worst ever for hate speech and misinformation.

Source: AFP