NEW DELHI: Four years is a long time in politics and Sri Lanka’s voters have just demonstrated that. If Mahinda Rajapaksa was ousted in 2015, his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa is now all set to become Sri Lanka’s seventh Executive President. A former Army officer-turned-wartime defence secretary, Gota, as he is popularly known, fought as opposition SLPP candidate.
The UNP’s Sajith Premadasa, who had to overcome stiff opposition from within, put up a valiant fight but the massive support he got from the minorities was apparently not enough to overcome the anger amongst the majority Sinhalas over inept governance in the past five years.
Gota, an efficient administrator, has clearly been preferred by the voters because they think he can secure the country, especially in the wake of the horrific Easter Sunday attacks that killed over 250 people in Colombo in April.
As defence secretary, he had led the military campaign against the LTTE, often inviting charges of brutality and human rights excesses, particularly from the West which expressed concern over his possible return to power in the run up to the polls. The voters clearly had a different priority.
Over these five years, the Rajapaksas have also overcome trust deficit with New Delhi and have reached out to the Modi government. In 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa had publicly accused India’s R&AW of interfering and influencing the outcome of the polls against him. This time, no such charge.
Conceding defeat, Sajith congratulated his poll rival and thanked his own supporters. “I am grateful to our citizens who voted for me. I am humbled that you placed your faith in me. Your support has been a fountain of strength throughout my political career,” he tweeted.
Gotabaya, meanwhile, has his task cut out. On top of his mind will be shoring up the security apparatus and putting the economy back on track. He will also have to make massive efforts to balance Sri Lanka’s relations with India and China. The latter’s massive presence in the island nation and the President-elect’s perceived closeness to Beijing made India wary about him. India and Gota seem to have overcome differences though.
In his first message as President-elect, Gotabaya held out hope, saying he would take every Sri Lankan along. “As we usher in a new journey for Sri Lanka, we must remember that all Sri Lankans are part of this journey,” he tweeted. He had a message for his supporters as well. Let us rejoice peacefully, with dignity and discipline in the same manner in which we campaigned.”
The 70-year-old retired lieutenant colonel will need to push all the skills that he has. But like he has shown in the past—by ridding Sri Lanka of its worst spell of insurgency—maybe, he can turn things around this time as well.