Colombo, Sri Lanka – Gotabaya Rajapaksa is set to win the Sri Lankan presidency after a closely fought election, as his main opponent Sajith Premadasa of the ruling United National Party conceded defeat.
Rajapaksa, a former defence secretary and brother of two-time former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, based his campaign for Saturday’s vote on providing strong leadership on national security issues, following coordinated bombings in April that killed at least 269 people.
“At the conclusion of a hard-fought and spirited election campaign, it is my privilege to honour the decision of the people and congratulate Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa on his election as the seventh President of Sri Lanka,” Premadasa said in a statement on Sunday.
Official results were due to be released by 4:00pm local time (10:30 GMT) on Sunday, election commission officials told Al Jazeera. Local media projections, however, put Rajapaksa in the lead with roughly six million votes counted across Sri Lanka.
In a statement posted on Twitter, Rajapsaka said that “even though the official results are not out yet, we are now crossing the victory line”.
“As we usher in a new journey for Sri Lanka, we must remember that all Sri Lankans are part of this journey. Let us rejoice peacefully, with dignity and discipline in the same manner in which we campaigned.”
As we usher in a new journey for Sri Lanka, we must remember that all Sri Lankans are part of this journey. Let us rejoice peacefully, with dignity and discipline in the same manner in which we campaigned. pic.twitter.com/tXqLrdH3Qv
— Gotabaya Rajapaksa (@GotabayaR) November 17, 2019
Keheliya Rambukwella, spokesman for Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, said national security is Rajapaksa’s “primary concern”, along with the revival of the economy.
“We are almost 600,000 votes ahead [and] we are certain that we will lead with 800,000 to one million votes,” he added.
Rights groups have long called for investigations into alleged rights abuses committed during the Rajapaksas previous terms in power, including UN allegations that more than 40,000 people were killed by security forces in the final days of the country’s civil war in the north, as Tamil rebels took shelter among civilians.
Rajapaksa’s campaign stressed on his credentials as the defence secretary that brought a close to the bloody 26-year civil war, while also calling for an overhaul of economic policies implemented by Premadasa’s UNP during its five years in charge of Parliament.
“As defence secretary during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade-long presidency ending in 2015, he was a leading figure in a government that many minority Tamils and Muslims, as well as opposition politicians, blame for terrible political violence and repression,” the International Crisis Group’s Alan Keenan said earlier this week.
“During that period, dozens of journalists were killed or forced into exile, prominent Tamil politicians were murdered, and thousands of Sri Lankans were forcibly disappeared; no one has since been held accountable for those crimes.”
The UNP remains in control of Parliament until at least February, which is the earliest a constitutionally mandated parliamentary election may be held. A potential standoff with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP chief, could be in the offing, as Rajapaksa has stated his intention to appoint his brother Mahinda as prime minister.
In his statement, Premadasa said he was also resigning as the UNP’s deputy party leader.
Paikisothy Saravanamuttu, executive director at the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, said Sri Lankans had elected “a majoritarian, authoritarian government”.
“The first thing that will happen is the prime minister will [likely] offer his resignation and Mahinda Rajapaksa will be sworn in,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Or, I think, Parliament will vote to dissolve itself, and a new election can be held by February. Or in March, the president can [constitutionally] dissolve the Parliament, anyway.”
More than 15.9 million Sri Lankans were eligible to vote in the presidential election, with voter turnout expected to top 80 percent, Mahinda Deshapriya, chairman of the election commission, told reporters on Saturday at the conclusion of polling.