COLOMBO (Reuters) - President Mahinda Rajapaksa won Sri Lanka’s first post-war national election on Wednesday, but his rival alleged vote-rigging from inside an hotel surrounded by soldiers which he said were sent to arrest him.
General Sarath Fonseka, a former army commander who led the military campaign to crush the Tamil Tiger insurgency, finally emerged from the hotel after the troops dispersed.
Fonseka quit the army in November and entered the race, complaining he had been sidelined and falsely suspected of plotting a coup. But his political debut ended in a stinging loss.
Official results showed Rajapaksa winning 57.8 percent of 10.4 million votes cast against 40.2 percent for Fonseka, Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake said.
Sri Lanka’s first national poll since the government defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May featured the two allies-turned enemies who waged a bruising campaign that culminated in relatively calm voting on Tuesday vote marked by a heavy turnout.
Rajapaksa sought a new mandate for his plans to develop Sri Lanka by rebuilding infrastructure and encouraging foreign investment and local productivity.
“I will start by developing the country,” a victorious Rajapaksa told reporters. “We are looking at a 6 percent plus (economic) growth in my second term.”
He also promised to sit down with the Tamil minority to discuss devolution of power, on which he has dragged his feet by citing the need to finish elections first.
Rajapaksa called the poll two years before his term expired, a gamble that paid off as he knocked out Fonseka and a coalition of diverse political parties that united solely to beat him.
That should give him a chance to reshuffle his coalition at parliamentary polls due by April.
Fonseka said he had asked the Elections Commissioner to nullify the vote, alleging vote-rigging. “We are going to go to the courts. Our strength is people and their franchise has been disregarded,” he told reporters.
However, few people expect he will get very far in the courts, which are seen as sympathetic to Rajapaksa.
Rajapaksa said the size of his victory margin put the lie to Fonseka’s allegation. “How can you rig 1.8 million votes and why should I rig? I knew from the beginning I was going to get this outcome,” he told a news conference.
Dissanayake said there were three areas in which vote counters had been assaulted but declined to say which side was responsible. International observers were due to report their findings on Thursday.
Shortly before Rajapaksa was declared the winner, two people were killed and four wounded in a grenade attack on a Buddhist temple in the central town of Gampola, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
Tension was high early on Wednesday as troops surrounded Fonseka in the Cinnamon Lakeside hotel in the capital Colombo. “They had a plan to surround us and take us into custody,” Fonseka told Reuters by phone.
A military spokesman said there were no plans to arrest Fonseka but rather to capture around 400 army deserters believed to be with him who posed a potential coup risk.
Nine of them were handed over to military police, but Fonseka later said they were part of his security detail. The general left the hotel to return home late on Wednesday, without being arrested.
Fonseka ran a relentless campaign to crush the Tigers, while Rajapaksa deflected international demands for a cease-fire and criticism of civilian deaths that prompted calls for a war crimes investigation.
Rajapaksa will hold on to the reins of the economy which has enjoyed a partial peace dividend, with big Chinese and Indian investments in infrastructure and plans to put $4 billion into development.
Foreign investors have put more than $1.5 billion into government securities, and the Colombo Stock Exchange, turned in one of 2009’s best returns at 125 percent.
Editing by Paul Tait/David Stamp