- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 28, 2010

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka | Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa swept to a second term in office Wednesday, but his chief rival vowed to challenge the results and for hours insisted he was being held a virtual prisoner in a tony hotel surrounded by hundreds of soldiers.

Mr. Rajapaksa tried to brush off the election dispute, calling on Sri Lankans to unite for the tough task of rebuilding a nation shattered by a generation of ethnic warfare.

And he sounded a warning: “From today onward, I am the president of everyone, whether they voted for me or not.”

Mr. Rajapaksa will now have to face Sri Lankans’ growing anxiety over the country’s economic stagnation, and he will be expected to tackle the tensions between his Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority that fueled the nation’s 25-year civil war.

What had been expected to be a tight election between two architects of the government’s victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels last year turned into a rout. Mr. Rajapaksa captured 57 percent of the vote, while Sarath Fonseka, a former army general, won 40 percent, according to the election commission.

Mr. Fonseka rejected the results and vowed to challenge them in court.

In a letter to the elections commissioner, Mr. Fonseka accused Mr. Rajapaksa of using the state media to attack him, misappropriating public funds for his campaign and preventing displaced minority Tamils from voting.

The distraught election commissioner, Dayananda Dissanayake, appeared to agree with some of the allegations. He said the state media violated his guidelines, government institutions misbehaved and he pleaded to be allowed to resign.

“I cannot bear this anymore,” he said just before announcing the final tally.

Though there were reports of irregularities throughout the country, there was no evidence to suggest large-scale fraud during the voting Tuesday, said Paikiyasothy Saravanamuttu of the independent Center for Monitoring Election Violence.

For much of Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s capital was tense as hundreds of soldiers and policemen ringed the upscale Cinnamon Lakeside hotel in central Colombo for hours, controlling access, and turning Mr. Fonseka — who had led some of these same troops in battle only eight months before — into a virtual prisoner.

The military presence appeared designed to prevent Mr. Fonseka from stirring up opposition protests to the vote. After night fell, Mr. Fonseka left the hotel and went to his private residence, said Tissa Attanayake, the general secretary of the main opposition party. Soon after, the soldiers also withdrew.

The large margin of victory will give Mr. Rajapaksa a fresh boost ahead of parliamentary elections planned for later this year, where he hopes to cement his hold on power, Mr. Saravanamuttu said.

But it is the lack of support he received in predominantly Tamil areas of the north — where turnout was extremely low — and his uncompromising stance toward the demands of the long-marginalized minority that signal potential trouble for his next government.

The race between the two men had elements of a classic drama from the start. Both are considered war heroes by the Sinhalese for their role in crushing the rebel’s armed struggle for an independent state in the north. They both also stand accused by human rights groups of possible war crimes committed during that fight.

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