Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa regime retains power

January 30, 2010

Incumbent and Sri Lanka Freedom Party candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa has won the January 26 presidential election, receiving 58% of votes cast.

Despite a record 23 candidates nominating for the presidency, only two were ever in the race. Rajapaksa had called the election two years ahead of schedule to consolidate his power in the wake of the 2009 military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who were leading the struggle for an independent Tamil state in the Tamil-majority north and east.

But an unlikely challenge came from his former top military chief, General Sarath Fonseka.

Like Rajapaksa, Fonseka was able to appeal to the right-wing Singhalese nationalist constituency because of his role in crushing the Tamil resistance. He headed the Sri Lankan Army between 2005 and 2009, including during the 2009 offensive that killed 30,000 Tamil civilians.

After the defeat of the LTTE he was ousted from his post and given the ceremonial role as Chief of Defence Staff. Seeing this as a power grab by Rajapaska, he resigned in November and began his electoral campaign.

Fonseka ran on an anti-corruption ticket with support ranging from the largest Tamil parliamentary party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to right-wing anti-Tamil groups. He appealed to people disappointed with Rajapaksa's record of human rights abuses, corruption and the growing culture of impunity.

Prior to the vote, Fonseka accused Rajapaksa of planning a coup if he lost. He said the president had moved 15 armoured personnel carriers to the capital Colombo.

"These are the indications of a military coup", Fonseka told the media on January 25. "If there is a war, we will face it."

Following the vote, the hotel where Fonseka had been staying was surrounded by the military, preventing him from leaving.

Rajapaksa used his five-year term to extend his presidential powers under the guise of anti-terror legislation. The role played by patronage in his rule was shown when he appointed 112 ministers into his cabinet — each with a car and driver.

That he became the first living person to be featured on a Sri Lankan banknote since Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 did nothing to reduce fears about his autocratic tendencies.

On election day, over 70,000 police officers were deployed across the country. They were joined by the army who were deployed to Tamil communities in the north and east of the country.

In the week before the poll the Electoral Commissioner admitted that he had given up warning police and public officials to remain impartial, as they continually ignored him, the January 27 London Times said.

Violence marred the lead-up to the election. "Sri Lankan groups monitoring the presidential election campaign say the levels of election-related violence and misuse of state resources are at their worst for at least 20 years", the BBC reported on January 21.

At least four political activists were killed and one journalist, Prageeth Eknaligoda, was abducted during the campaign. Riot police dispersed rallies in several parts of the country.

While there was a voter turnout of more than 70% across the country, much smaller numbers were recorded in Tamil-majority areas. "The North and East witnessed a very low voter turnout of less than 20%", People's Action for Free and Fair Elections spokesperson Rohana Hettiarachchi told the January 26 Sri Lankan Daily Mirror.

In Jaffna, the turnout was 18%, reported on January 26.

Faced with a choice between two candidates campaigning on their role in the brutal suppression of Tamil aspirations for self-determination, many Tamils chose to boycott.

Others didn't vote due to inability to register or reach polling stations. With hundreds of thousands still in army-run internment camps, and many more trapped in transit camps, access to polling stations was difficult. Former residents of the Menik Farm internment camp had to return there, often with great difficulty.

The London Times said on January 26 that only about 42,000 of the 300,000 Tamils forced from their homes had registered to vote.

TNA leader Rajavarothiam Sampanthan told January 25 British Daily Telegraph: "It's emotionally difficult to vote for either, but people are looking at the performance of Rajapaksa on human rights, extra-judicial killings, disappearances and abductions, and failing to deliver a political solution.

"It moved backwards with the war and a great deal of harm was done to the Tamil people. All these factors have led to a feeling among the Tamil and Muslim people that another Rajapaksa government would be harmful.

"The Fonseka factor is secondary. This is about people wanting to get rid of Rajapaksa."

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