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Politics

Military hawk Gotabaya Rajapaksa wins Sri Lanka election

Vote paves way for pro-China clan to return to power

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a tough-talking former defense secretary, campaigned on promises to restore discipline and strengthen national security.   © Reuters

COLOMBO -- Gotabaya Rajapaksa has won Sri Lanka's eighth presidential election, with ultranationalist support powering him past the moderate Sajith Premadasa in Saturday's polls.

Early results show the 70-year-old Rajapaksa was backed by constituencies that had been expected to support him, largely from the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority who dominate the rural heartland. But the electoral map revealed how deeply polarized the country is, since Rajapaksa trailed in areas that are home to the country's linguistic and religious minorities.

Rajapaksa, a tough-talking former defense secretary, was the candidate for Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, a newly formed party and vehicle for his family, the country's most influential political clan. His promises to restore discipline and strengthen national security also resonated in urban areas, including Colombo, the largest city in the country.

Rajapaksa also had a head start: His party nominated him weeks before the 52-year-old Premadasa, a cabinet minister in the incumbent government, was named the candidate for the New Democratic Front. He held his lead even after Premadasa closed the gap by campaigning on themes like social welfare and inclusive politics.

Even as the counting continued, Premadasa issued a brief statement on Sunday morning conceding defeat. "At the conclusion of a hard fought and spirited election campaign, it is my privilege to honor the decision of the people and to congratulate Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa on his election as the seventh President of Sri Lanka," he said.

Voters' decision sets the stage for the pro-China Rajapaksas to return to power on the strategically located South Asian island after a hiatus of nearly five years. Gotabaya was a key figure during the nearly 10-year presidency of his elder brother Mahinda, whose two terms were marked by his authoritarian grip.

The Rajapaksas' quest to build a political dynasty was interrupted when Mahinda suffered a surprise defeat in the last presidential election in January 2015.

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