By Saeed Shah in Islamabad and Asiri Fernando in Colombo
Nov. 17, 2019: The controversial Rajapaksa family has swept back to power in Sri Lanka, after years of policy gridlock and terrorist attacks this year convinced citizens to vote for a return to the “strongmen” leaders.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had guided the successful military campaign to end the island nation’s three-decade civil war, scooped the votes of the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
The previous Rajapaksa Presidency—his brother Mahinda from 2005 to 2015—brought Sri Lanka close to Beijing, as they signed up for billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects to be built by China.
Mr. Rajapaksa beat predictions of a close result with an emphatic 52% of the vote, against 42% for his main opponent, Sajith Premadasa, official results showed.
Tamil and Muslim minorities, concentrated in the north and east of the country, voted largely for Mr. Premadasa, leaving the country polarized. Tamils were scared by Mr. Rajapaksa’s war record, while Muslims were apprehensive about his alleged ties to hard-line Buddhist groups.
“I understand that as president I am duty bound to protect and work for the benefit of all communities in Sri Lanka,” Mr. Rajapaksa said.
Sri Lanka is still reeling from the devastating terrorist attacks in April by Islamic militants which killed more than 260 people. Fear galvanized the ethnic-religious majority behind Mr. Rajapaksa, whose main pitch is security, experts said.
Mr. Rajapaksa, who gave up his dual U.S. citizenship to run for president, is seen by analysts as a “strongman” figure, the kind of authoritarian politician who has come to power in many countries across the world.
“What happened in April reinforced the Rajapaksas,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo. “Voters are saying we need strong leadership, someone who understands what security is all about.”
His opponent’s party, in power since 2015, was punished by voters for a record that included allegations of corruption, infighting and failing to act on intelligence that might have prevented the terrorist attack.
During the decade that Mahinda Rajapaksa was president, the government won the war against insurgents from the Tamil minority, turning the family into heroes for many in the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the defense secretary and directed that war effort.
However, defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in 2009, was marred by allegations of human rights abuses with the last few months of the fighting in particular leading to large scale civilian casualties, a subsequent United Nations’ investigation found.
Mahinda Rajapaksa—a charismatic figure who has a more devoted political following than his brother—is now expected to seek the position of prime minister in parliamentary polls that are due within months.
With Gotabaya as president, experts see it much more likely that voters will back Mahinda for prime minister, meaning a family takeover of the two big offices of state.
Kusal Perera, a newspaper columnist, said Sri Lanka could now take a similar direction to Narendra Modi’s India, where the religion of the majority is ascendant politically.
“This election has legitimized a Sinhala Buddhist theocratic state,” Mr. Perera said. “There won’t be any democratic space left for other voices.”
Under the previous Rajapaksa government, free speech was curtailed and critics were abducted, while they forged relations with extreme Buddhist groups, say detractors. The Rajapaksas reject these accusations but have suggested that their rule will be different this time.
“We consider Tamils and Muslims to be our brothers,” another of the brothers, Basil Rajapaksa, who organized the presidential campaign, told The Wall Street Journal last month.
“We are not a one ethnic group, one religion, party.”
Western diplomats had said privately ahead of the election that they would find it easier to work with Mr. Rajapaksa’s opponent. The U.N. has called for possible war crimes to be investigated and punished, but Mr. Rajapaksa has already said he would pull Sri Lanka out of U.N.-backed planned court hearings that would include foreign judges.
The Rajapaksas have promised to revive the sagging economy, including delivering a new series of big infrastructure projects.
Under the outgoing government, Sri Lanka had moved closer to the U.S. and its regional ally India. Sri Lanka had became a new logistics hub for the U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean as Washington seeks to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region.
Washington wants the new government to sign up to a $500 million economic aid program and a contentious military agreement that will enable U.S. military personnel to operate freely in Sri Lanka.
Alaina Teplitz, the U.S. ambassador in Colombo posted on Twitter: “We look forward to working w/ President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa on issues of good governance, economic growth, the advancement of human rights and reconciliation in support of a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka.”
Palitha Kohona, an adviser to Mr. Rajapaksa and a former foreign secretary, said he couldn’t see the need for the military agreement with the U.S. as there is no defense pact with Washington. He said that the Rajapaksas were open to doing projects with any country able to fund them, but only China had stepped up when they were last in power.
“What we need is infrastructure, whether the U.S. or China does it,” said Mr. Kohona said.
China has outgunned the U.S. and multilateral sources of finance across the world to fund and build infrastructure in recent years.
The move toward China by the Rajapaksas in their previous term had also alarmed neighboring India, a U.S. ally. In opposition, the Rajapaksas had reached out to Indian leader Mr. Modi, who on Sunday congratulated Gotabaya on his victory.