Sri Lanka’s former defence chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa has won the country’s presidential election, capitalising on public fury over the Easter bomb attacks that killed 277 people to lead his family to a stunning political comeback.
The younger brother of former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ruled the country for a decade until his shock election defeat in 2015, Mr Rajapaksa has vowed to restore “discipline” and strengthen security.
The president-elect is also expected to install Mahinda — who was barred by new term limits from running for president himself — as prime minister if his Sri Lanka’s People’s Front (SLPF) wins parliamentary elections due in the coming months, if not before.
The return of the Rajapaksa brothers marks a dramatic turnabout for the Indian Ocean island nation, where both the US and China have been vying for influence as part of a wider regional competition.
“We are now at a very decisive and victorious juncture for the Sri Lankan government,” the SLPF said in a statement.
The party urged its supporters to celebrate peacefully and conduct themselves in an “exemplary” manner “as the first step in a respectful new government we start tomorrow”.
Mr Rajapaksa’s overwhelming support among the Sinhala Buddhist majority, who make up 70 per cent of the country’s 22m people, gave him a decisive victory over his main challenger, the United Nationalist Party’s Sajith Premadasa, who drew wide support in minority Tamil regions.
Conceding defeat, Mr Premadasa appealed to his rival to “strengthen and protect the democratic institutions and values that enabled this peaceful election”. He also asked Mr Rajapaksa to ensure “that the post-elect environment is peaceful” and that opposition supporters were not persecuted.
Mr Rajapaksa’s ascent will be welcomed in Beijing, which had close ties with Mahinda Rajapaksa, and will concern Washington, which has been seeking to integrate Sri Lanka into its Indian Ocean security strategy.
“Sri Lanka sits astride vital sea lanes of communication,” said Brahma Chellaney, a security analyst at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. “If China is going to be the main player influencing Sri Lankan foreign policy, and Sri Lanka — like Cambodia — is becoming part of the Chinese camp, it’s going to represent a setback to the US strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister and UNP leader, has called a cabinet meeting for Sunday evening to discuss the results, although several ministers have already resigned.
Mahinda Rajapaksa ruled Sri Lanka from 2005 until 2015, crushing a 26-year-old Tamil separatist insurgency. As defence secretary in that administration, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former army colonel, was critical in the uncompromising final assault that obliterated the Tamil Tiger rebel movement.
But the civil war’s brutal end led to fraught relations between the Rajapaksa administration and the west, which accused authorities of serious rights abuses during and after the war.
Defying western demands for accountability and justice, Mahinda Rajapaksa forged close ties with Beijing, which provided a tide of credit for ambitious infrastructure projects.
During the postwar economic boom, many Sri Lankans who had once lionised the Rajapaksas grew disillusioned, amid allegations that the family was skimming money from Chinese-backed infrastructure projects and the suppression of dissent.
Mr Wickremesinghe has repaired frayed ties with the west, and undertaken a $1.5bn IMF adjustment programme. But the government has been plagued by bitter infighting, while decision-making has been paralysed, to the chagrin the business community.
The government’s failure to prevent April’s Isis-inspired bomb attacks on three five-star hotels and three churches — despite multiple warnings from foreign intelligence agencies — provided the context Gotabaya Rajapaksa needed for his presidential bid.
“He has a reputation for being a no-nonsense, ‘I will get things done’ person,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think-tank.