Sri Lanka strongman Rajapaksa wins presidency by big margin

President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves at his supporters as he leaves his house in Colombo, Sri Lanka November 17, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lanka’s former civil wartime defense chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa was declared the winner in the presidential election on Sunday, after promising to secure the country against militant threats following Easter bombings this year.

Rajapaksa, who will be sworn into office in an ancient Buddhist temple on Monday, is the latest nationalist leader to sweep to election victory, tapping into the anger and fears of majority communities.

In his first comments after defeating Sajith Premadasa, a housing minister in the current government, Rajapaksa struck a conciliatory note, suggesting he would be leader of all Sri Lankans, regardless of their ethnic and religious identities.

“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,” Rajapaksa said in a tweet.

The election commission said Rajapaksa won 52.25% of the votes in Saturday’s election, while Premadasa got 41.99%, giving Rajapaksa a far bigger lead than predicted by politicians and analysts.

Millions voted to elect a new president to lead the country out of its deepest economic slump in over 15 years, dragged down by its tourism sector following the bombings on April 21 which killed more than 250 people.

Rajapaksa, 70, oversaw the military defeat of Tamil separatists under his brother and then president Mahinda Rajapaksa 10 years ago. He has promised strong leadership to secure the island of 22 million people, the majority of whom are Sinhalese Buddhists.

Rajapaksa and his brothers, who are expected to get key positions, are seen as closer to China than Premadasa. China has invested billions of dollars building ports, expressways and power stations in the strategic Indian Ocean island nation.

But these projects have also led to high debt levels for Sri Lanka.

Finance minister Mangala Samaraweera and two other ministers resigned on Sunday after the defeat of the ruling party’s candidate in the election.

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