President Rajapaksa wins Sri Lanka election with landslide

Winner gets 57% of votes against Fonseka's 40%, but rival plans to challenge outcome in court because of alleged irregularities.

COLOMBO // The Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, swept through a surprised opposition, winning convincingly Tuesday's presidential election but failing to placate minority Tamils or prevent post-election violence by suppor-ters.

The unprecedented margin of victory will, however, help the president to steamroller the opposition in parliamentary polls due anytime before April, providing him with the power and will to propel Sri Lanka to First World country status from Third World, as he promised during the election campaign, analysts said. Mr Rajapaksa secured 57 per cent of the count, a figure described as "unbelievable" by a number of analysts, while the former army commander Sarath Fonseka garnered 40 per cent, in a contest that was earlier expected to be a close fight with the president having the edge.

An estimated 70 per cent of the country's 14 million eligible voters went to the poll. Jehan Perera, a political analyst and commentator for the English-language Daily Island newspaper, said: "The margin of victory is hard to believe and there must be some explanation since many people felt it would be a close 50-50 fight." Meanwhile, dozens of soldiers surrounded a Colombo hotel where Mr Fonseka, the main opposition candidate, was staying. Many opposition leaders spoke to reporters in the hotel corridors, urging the government to allow him free movement.

Mr Fonseka told reporters soon after the elections commissioner declared Mr Rajapaksa the winner that he rejected the results on the ground of irregularities and planned to challenge them in court. He listed 10 reasons for this, including depriving displaced persons - mostly Tamils - from voting. Mr Fonseka also accused the government of a plot to assassinate him, telling reporters that his freedom had been restricted by the soldiers who had attempted to enter the hotel to arrest him earlier yesterday, but were prevented by the 30 security personnel assigned to him. It was unclear as to why the government wanted to arrest him, but the election campaign was marred by accusations and mudslinging by both candidates, essentially over corruption claims.

The losing candidate won in the north and east where most of the minority Tamil and Muslim communities live, making the president's task harder in winning financial and political support from the west for the costly task of rebuilding the war-ravaged regions. Mr Perera said one of the priorities of the president would be to heal the rift between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. "He needs to quickly rebuild Tamil-dominated areas and gain their trust," he said. The two communities drifted apart after Tamil militants launched a 25-year bloody campaign for a separate homeland.

Mr Rajapaksa has a rocky relationship with the West after he rejected calls from western leaders to halt fighting between government troops and Tamil rebels last year when civilian casualties were mounting. The rebels were eventually defeated in May that year. The victory became a crucial element in the election campaign for both Mr Rajapaksa and Mr Fonseka, who had commanded the army during the war, equally claiming credit.

Although the president lost in the minority-dominated northe and east, he won by large majorities in most other districts. Two people were killed and opposition supporters attacked yesterday, despite calls on Monday by the president for a peaceful poll and post-election peace. Before the elections, there were 700 reports of violent incidents. Lalithasiri Gunaruwan, a Colombo University economist who was on the team that prepared Mr Rajapaksa's election manifesto, said in an interview that the president would now focus on improving infrastructure and services in an effort to make Sri Lanka a First World country.

"Good infrastructure and services are essential to a developing economy where agriculture and industry play a key role. If we don't have good roads and good harbours, we won't be able to ship out our exports fast," he said. Among the president's promises were to develop more harbours to turn Sri Lanka into a regional shipping hub and also develop a knowledge economy. The economist said there was a need to develop a solid public administrative team and prepare the cost of the development plan in the manifesto, which also included doubling Sri Lanka's per capita income from the current US$2,200 (Dh8,000) in the next few years.

Perera said Mr Rajapaksa, shunned by the West, would move to further strengthen ties with China, Libya, Iran and Russia, which supported him during the war, and seek support in the reconstruction effort. "If he wants to lift Sri Lanka's status, he needs to ensure the rule of law and integrity. Increasing incomes alone is not enough: law and order is also important," he said. Rohana Hettiarachchci, the director of the People's Action for Free and Fair Elections, a local poll monitor, said many Tamils displaced by last year's fighting were unable to vote as buses taking them to the polling centres were delayed.

"Many wanted to vote," he said, adding that some 100-odd incidents on polling day including allegations of intimidation of voters and poll rigging were unlikely to have affected the final result.