Sri Lanka’s president wins by big margin. Fonseka surrounded.

Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory bodes well for his party in parliamentary elections due by April. Challenger Sarath Fonseka, whose hotel remains surrounded by armed troops, has refused to accept the results.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa waves after hearing the election results in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Wednesday.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa is set for a second six-year term after an unexpectedly large win in Tuesday’s hard-fought election, defying predictions of a dead-heat outcome. Official results showed that 59 percent of votes went to the incumbent, who called early elections last year after crushing a 26-year ethnic Tamil insurgency.

His opponent, former military chief Sarath Fonseka, has refused to accept defeat, citing electoral irregularities. Many of his supporters seemed stunned by the result and some questioned the wide margin. Still, most opposition leaders have conceded that Tuesday’s voting was largely free and fair, and that Fonseka failed to woo the rural Sinhalese majority and suffered from a low turnout in Tamil areas.

The victory puts Rajapaksa into a strong position ahead of parliamentary elections due by April at which his political party will be vying to win an outright majority. That worries Sri Lankans who fear the concentration of power in the hands of the president and his family, which is increasingly entrenched in senior government posts.

Overnight Tuesday, dozens of heavily armed troops surrounded the five-star hotel in Colombo where Fonseka was staying, injecting a note of drama into the day’s events. Grim-faced soldiers searched cars leaving the hotel, where a lavish wedding was being held. Army officers said they were searching for deserters who had joined Fonseka amid rumors that he may be arrested for treason. A spokesman for the candidate hinted that he would go into exile in India.

Opposition claims unfair obstacles

In the run-up to polling, the opposition had accused the government of politicizing government agencies and using the state media to demonize their candidate. Four people died in violence blamed on pro-government thugs. Rauf Hakeem, leader of the opposition Sri Lankan Muslim Congress, said Wednesday that the government had committed “numerous violations of electoral laws.” He also called for the withdrawal of troops outside Fonseka’s hotel.

“This is an extraordinary situation that we’ve never encountered in a presidential election,” he told reporters.

The standoff at the hotel continued Wednesday night. But the size of the president’s win – a margin of 1.8 million out of nearly 10 million votes cast – appeared too great to be overturned by legal means, despite the apparent loss of Tamil votes in areas like Jaffna, where election-day bombings and chaotic voter rolls ensured a poor turnout.

President amasses power

Rajapaksa was elected president in 2005. During his first term, social activists and media executives complained of widespread intimidation and repression, particularly during last year’s climax of the war. An opposition newspaper editor was shot dead during his morning commute last January, one of many unsolved attacks on the media.

In recent months, the lively presidential campaign opened up space for dissenting views as the two camps sparred over the war’s conduct, corruption in public spending, and other sensitive issues. But that space may now constrict with an enfeebled opposition, as there are few independent checks on the executive’s power.

Even among Sri Lankans who cheered on a wartime president, there is wariness over what lies ahead. “This is bad for Sri Lankan democracy in the long run, this kind of huge majority for a person who has shown despotic tendencies. They’ve got a stranglehold now,” says Rajpal Abeynayake, editor of Lakbima News newspaper. But, he adds, the “people have spoken.”

Tamil leaders aligned to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the insurgency group defeated last year, had backed Fonseka as the candidate more likely to reach out to them, despite his military career. Rajapaksa has rejected the need for a political solution to Tamil nationalism, arguing that economic development of war-torn areas is the answer to alienation.

Outside influence likely to dim

His victory may sharpen criticism from disaffected Tamils, particularly in the diaspora, over the futility of participating in mainstream politics, warn observers. But few expect radicals to regroup and revive the LTTE’s violent struggle for a Tamil homeland. “This was the defeat of Tamil militancy,” says a Western diplomat.

The election result will also dampen the force of international calls for a full accounting of the war’s conduct. Human rights groups say that Sri Lankan troops and the LTTE committed serious war crimes that should be investigated. A UN official recently said a video clip of soldiers shooting captured rebels was likely authentic, provoking a furious rebuttal from the government.

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