Sri Lanka’s former wartime Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a member of the country’s most powerful political dynasty, has been elected president in a decisive moment for the country which has witnessed the worst political instability and violence since the end of the civil war a decade ago.
"I am grateful for the opportunity to be the president, not only of those who voted for me, but the president of all Sri Lankans. The trust you have invested in me is deeply moving and being your president will be the greatest honour of my life. Let’s put our vision into action!" Rajapaksa said in a tweet after official results were announced.
The polling showed Rajapaksa 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 electoral commission said.
His return to power has caused disruption as Rajapaksa was accused of war crimes, killings, torture and the disappearances of scores of people as de facto head of the army during the brutal end of the civil war in 2009 between the majority Sinhala-Buddhist government and minority Tamil separatists.
Rajapaksa is the younger brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the two nationalists gave the military a free hand to crush the Tamil separatists and end a 26-year civil war that had left more than 100,000 people dead.
Raising human rights issues during his time as defence secretary, he said last month during the campaign: “You’re talking about the past all the time, let’s talk about the future.”
Rajapaksa, the candidate for the Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist party (SLPP), has vowed to drain the swamp of religious extremism that bred the home-grown Islamist suicide bombers who struck at churches and hotels in April, killing more than 250 people.
The 70-year president plans to rebuild the security arms of the state, including its intelligence cells and surveillance networks, saying that the outgoing administration was dismantled under international pressure.
These pronouncements have triggered fears of a return to a security state like that Rajapaksa created to fight the Tamils, one that could be directed against Muslims who have faced hostility from Sinhalese Buddhist hardliners ever since the attacks, according to experts.
"Sri Lanka’s Muslims are among those most fearful of a Gotabaya presidency," said Alan Keenan, project director for Sri Lanka at the International Crisis Group.
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 a shooting attack on buses carrying Muslim voters in the north-east, which were stopped by a roadblock and fired upon, there were however no casualties.