Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse won a bruising re-election battle on Wednesday that left his main rival in apparent fear of assassination as heavily armed troops surrounded his Colombo hotel.
The elections commissioner said Rajapakse had secured 57,9% of the popular vote in Tuesday’s presidential election — the first since the military victory over Tamil Tiger rebels last May ended the decades-long civil war.
“This is a victory for the people,” Rajapakse said after the announcement. “I thank those who voted for me and those who did not. I will work for all of them.”
The main challenger, former army chief Sarath Fonseka, was given 40,1% of the vote and vowed to challenge the result in court.
The contest had been a straight race between the two men, who were hailed as national heroes after engineering the decisive victory over the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
But from close allies on the battlefield they turned into irreconcilable enemies after Fonseka, a political novice, decided to challenge his former boss at the ballot box.
Even as the votes were still being counted, up to 100 soldiers with machine guns surrounded the luxury Colombo hotel where Fonseka was holed up with several other opposition leaders.
Military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said the troop deployment followed information that Fonseka had hunkered down in the hotel with 400 people, some of whom were “army deserters”.
Nanayakkara insisted the move was simply a precautionary measure and that the retired four-star general was free to leave whenever he chose.
But Fonseka told reporters that the government was plotting to have him killed by removing his personal security guards and exposing him to assassination.
“They are behaving like murderers,” he said. “We will never accept this result. We will petition [the court] against it,” he added.
Fonseka’s spokesperson, Mano Ganeshan, said the former general wanted foreign protection.
“I am going to meet a diplomat of a neighbouring country to seek assurances for his safety,” Ganeshan said, in an apparent reference to India.
The government had earlier accused Fonseka of employing a private militia consisting of army deserters, a charge denied by the opposition.
The vitriolic nature of the election campaign, the personal animosity between the two main candidates and tit-for-tat accusations of coup plots had all fuelled concerns that any result would be contested and foment new unrest.
Opposition spokesperson Rauf Hakeen argued that the electoral process had been violated even before voting began.
“On the election day there were no serious incidents to talk about, but you have to look at the election process from the beginning,” he said, adding that state resources had been abused, including the state-run media.
Four people were killed and more than 1 000 cases of election-related violence were reported to police in the run-up to Tuesday’s contest.
There were a number of violent incidents during voting, including bomb attacks in the northern Tamil stronghold of Jaffna, which monitors said had deterred some people from voting.
Rajapakse has ruled Sri Lanka since 2005. His three brothers and other family members are in key government positions including the ministries of defence and ports.
The country faces an enormous task in rebuilding its war ravaged economy, and is under stiff international pressure to secure a lasting political solution that addresses the grievances of its large Tamil minority.
There is also the question of alleged war crimes committed during the successful military offensive against the LTTE, who had fought for a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka since 1972.
The United Nations says 7 000 Tamil civilians may have died in the final months of the fighting, though the government denies this.
Rajapakse and Fonseka, who belong to the Sinhalese majority, had both courted Tamil voters during the campaign, with pledges of greater political inclusion and investment in the devastated north-east region. — AFP