Ex-Sri Lanka leader Ra­japakse con­cedes poll de­feat


Sri Lanka’s for­mer strong­man Mahinda Ra­japakse ad­mit­ted his dream of a po­lit­i­cal come­back was over Tues­day, con­ced­ing de­feat in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions while his vic­to­ri­ous ri­val ap­pealed for unity.

Only eight months af­ter his shock de­feat in pres­i­den­tial polls, Ra­japakse ac­knowl­edged there would be no swift re­turn to power in the role of prime min­is­ter af­ter the party of in­cum­bent Ranil Wick­remesinghe took an unas­sail­able lead.

“My dream of be­com­ing prime min­is­ter has faded away,” Ra­japakse told AFP in an early morn­ing phone in­ter­view.

“I am con­ced­ing. We have lost a good fight.”

While he had been bullish about his chances on polling day, Ra­japakse’s tone had changed sharply on Tues­day as he ac­cepted his United Peo­ple’s Free­dom Al­liance (UPFA) had lost, long be­fore the fi­nal re­sults.

The out­come rep­re­sents another bit­ter blow for Ra­japakse, who led Sri Lanka for a decade be­fore he was dra­mat­i­cally ousted by his one-time ally Maithri­pala Sirisena in a Jan. 8 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Since then, he has seen a wel­ter of cor­rup­tion ac­cu­sa­tions lev­eled against him and his close rel­a­tives, in­clud­ing his wife.

“There were some who crit­i­cized me then (Jan­uary) for con­ced­ing so early in the count, but I did it be­cause it was the right thing to do,” Ra­japakse said of the Jan­uary polls. “This time too we have lost.”

“We have won eight dis­tricts and the UNP (rul­ing United Na­tional Party) has 11 (out of a to­tal of 22),” Ra­japakse said. “This means we have lost. It was a dif­fi­cult fight.”

No party ap­pears to have se­cured an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity of 113 seats in the 225-mem­ber par­lia­ment, which will force the new gov­ern­ment to seek out smaller al­lies.

While stop­ping short of pro­claim­ing vic­tory for his party, Wick­remesinghe said the out­come was an endorsement of the “Jan. 8 revo­lu­tion” which brought him to power.

“I thank all those who worked for the vic­tory of the peo­ple,” Wick­remesinghe said in a state­ment.

“It is not nec­es­sary to di­vide the peo­ple as win­ners and losers. I urge all to unite and help build our na­tion.”

A top aide to the prime min­is­ter said the state­ment amounted to a de facto dec­la­ra­tion of vic­tory but Wick­remesinghe did not want to strike a tri­umphant tone.

“He wants to play it down be­cause the thrust of the new gov­ern­ment is in­clu­sive­ness, unity and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion,” the aide told AFP.

Ref­er­en­dum on Ra­japakse

Ra­japakse re­mains hugely pop­u­lar among large sec­tions of the ma­jor­ity Sin­halese com­mu­nity for pre­sid­ing over the crush­ing de­feat of Tamil guer­ril­las in 2009 af­ter their 37-year war for a sep­a­rate home­land.

But the 69-year-old re­mains a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure on an is­land still strug­gling to come to terms with the past.

He was shunned by Western gov­ern­ments over the bru­tal end to the is­land’s eth­nic con­flict, and re­mains deeply un­pop­u­lar among its Tamil and Mus­lim mi­nori­ties.

The per­cep­tion that nepo­tism and cor­rup­tion flour­ished dur­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tion also dam­aged his po­lit­i­cal rep­u­ta­tion.

Ra­japakse se­cured a seat in par­lia­ment by stand­ing for the north­west­ern dis­trict of Ku­rune­gala af­ter ditch­ing his home con­stituency of Ham­ban­tota, where three of his close fam­ily mem­bers con­tested and one of them lost.

Sirisena had called the gen­eral elec­tion a year ahead of sched­ule to try to strengthen his num­bers in the par­lia­ment so he could push through promised re­forms.

Wick­remesinge, who is al­most cer­tain to re­main as prime min­is­ter, had de­scribed Mon­day’s vote as a ref­er­en­dum on Ra­japakse.

As pres­i­dent, Ra­japakse cul­ti­vated close ties with China dur­ing his decade in power, but Sirisena and Wick­remesinghe have been try­ing to steer Colombo away from Bei­jing’s close em­brace and have made con­certed ef­forts to im­prove ties with gi­ant neigh­bor In­dia.

Peace­ful Vote

Since his sur­prise vic­tory over his for­mer men­tor, Sirisena has strug­gled to im­pose his au­thor­ity over his United Peo­ple’s Free­dom Al­liance (UPFA) party and was pow­er­less to pre­vent Ra­japakse from stand­ing as one of its can­di­dates.

He threat­ened to in­voke his ex­ec­u­tive pow­ers to pre­vent his com­bat­ive pre­de­ces­sor from be­com­ing prime min­is­ter, but Ra­japakse was bank­ing on a strong show­ing to force Sirisena to back down.

Elec­tions Com­mis­sioner Mahinda De­shapriya said the vote had been one of the most peace­ful in Sri Lanka’s history.

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