Sri Lanka’s former wartime defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is part of the country’s most powerful political dynasty, has been elected president, raising fears about the future of human rights and religious harmony in the region.
On Sunday, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the candidate for the SLPP, the Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist party, claimed an easy victory in the presidential election held Saturday, which had been fought against the backdrop of some of the worst political instability and violence the country has seen since the end of the civil war a decade ago.Before even half of the votes were in, the Rajapaksa camp were quick to claim victory.
“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,” said his spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella. The candidate for Sri Lanka’s ruling UNP party, Sajith Premadasa, quickly accepted defeat and congratulated his rival.
The election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former army general who is known for his nationalistic and authoritarian leanings and is still facing allegations for corruption and torture, could be a decisive moment for Sri Lanka.
“It is all our worst fears realised,” said Hilmy Ahmed, the vice-president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council. “Sri Lanka is totally polarised by this result and we can see through the votes there is now a clear divide between the Sinhala Buddhist majority and the minorities. It is a huge challenge to see how the country could be united.”
The polls took place seven months after the deadly Easter Sunday attacks, which saw self-radicalised Islamist extremists bomb hotels and churches, killing over 250 people and throwing Sri Lanka into a state of emergency.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had served as defence minister when his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was president between 2005 and 2010, had played on fears stoked by the attacks and put security at the forefront of his campaign agenda. He and Mahinda Rajapaksa are credited for ending the 26-year-long Sri Lankan civil war, which took over 100,000 lives, but their legacy is one tarnished with grave human rights abuses and oppression.As de facto head of the army during the brutal end of the civil war which was fought between the majority Sinhala-Buddhist government and minority Tamil separatists, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been accused of creating military “death squads” who hunted down Tamil fighters and any critics of the government.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has already explicitly said he would repeal Sri Lanka’s commitment to a UN human rights agenda for reconciliation and accountability for atrocities committed in the civil war, describing it as “illegal”.
Under the iron fist of Mahinda Rajapaksa, there was no freedom of expression and journalists and campaigners were routinely attacked or “disappeared”. The police and the judiciary were also under the control of the Rajapaksa family.
Minorities in Sri Lanka had also been alarmed at the divisive Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism agenda seen to be promoted by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa campaign, which could stir up sectarian tensions in Sri Lanka again.
In particular the Muslim community, who have faced violence and boycotts since the Easter Sunday attacks, had expressed concern about election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has the backing of the nationalist Buddhist groups responsible for stoking anti-Muslim sentiment and violence in recent years.
The results showed that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had rode to victory on a wave of support from the majority Sinhala Buddhist community. With almost half the votes counted, Rajapaksa led with 50.7%, while his main rival Premadasa had 43.8%, the election commission said.
The election saw a turnout of 80%, one of the largest in Sri Lanka’s recent history. It was also relatively peaceful, despite being marred by incidents including the shooting of buses carrying Muslim voters in the north-east, which were stopped by a roadblock and fired at by attackers. There were no casualties.
The election commission has said it expects results to be clear by late Sunday and a new president to be sworn in within a day.
The Rajapaksa campaign has also confirmed they intend to put Mahinda forward for prime minister at the general elections next year, paving the way for the family to take a double stranglehold on power in Sri Lanka.
Source: The Gurdian