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Ruling party cruises to victory in parliamentary polls

Partial results give the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (pictured) a comfortable lead in Sri Lanka’s first parliamentary elections since the end of a bitter conflict with the Tamil Tigers.


REUTERS - Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Friday won his third battle in less than a year, securing the parliamentary majority he asked voters to give him to lead the nation from a martial past toward prosperity.

The veteran politician, 64, in the space of 11 months has won a war many deemed unwinnable, beaten back a stiff challenge to his re-election with a landslide victory and now will have a stronger parliamentary majority to entrench his dominance.

It is a stunning turnaround for a man who won his first term with barely 100,000 votes, but has since established a record of shattering expectations, crushing his rivals and displaying a mix of guile, charm and force in getting what he wants.

In May, he stood victorious in one of Asia's longest-running and bloodiest civil wars after the military crushed the separatist Tamil Tigers in a cataclysmic finale that drew Western condemnation for its brutality and disregard for civilians. In January, Rajapaksa defied forecasts he would race to a photo finish with former army commander General Sarath Fonseka, turning in a 57.8 percent tally against the popular soldier's 40.2 percent.

Two weeks later, Rajapaksa's government arrested the man who had led the army to victory and charged him in two courts-martial.

In doing so, Rajapaksa may have shown his neophyte challenger that four decades of battlefield experience were no match for his 40 years of practice in political combat. It was not the first time an enemy may have underestimated him.

Tamil Tiger separatist leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran may have brought about his own end by helping bring Rajapaksa to power. He ordered Tamils to boycott the 2005 election, which deprived Rajapaksa's competitor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, of votes.

First elected at 25

A lawyer, he followed his father into the family business of politics and became Sri Lanka's youngest-ever legislator in 1970 at the age of 25. He has also served as labour minister and prime minister.

And on Friday, the president must have seen through his father's eyes when his eldest son, Namal, won a parliamentary seat.

The president's brothers, Basil and Chamal, also won seats, while a third brother, Gotabaya, remains in charge of Sri Lanka's security apparatus as defence secretary. He was one of the main architects of the war strategy.

Rajapaksa habitually wears the traditional dress of a white knee-length shirt, sarong and his trademark maroon sash. He hails from the southern coastal district of Hambantota, where Chinese companies are now building a massive port.

Although Rajapaksa is a consummate populist, quick with a joke or a pat on the back, he has displayed steely resolve and cunning against opponents.

He quickly sidelined Fonseka after the war, creating a new job for him in which he had no troops at his command after suspecting the general may attempt a coup or otherwise try to subvert his vast powers.

Those factors led Fonseka to quit and enter the poll race, bringing his warrior's swagger onto the campaign trail, accusing the president of corruption and nepotism.

Rajapaksa fought back and in the end humiliated the general by cornering him in a Colombo hotel with soldiers he had commanded just a few months before. Two weeks later, the military arrested Fonseka.

While Fonseka and the rest of the armed forces fought to crush the rebels, Rajapaksa stood firm against international pressure and proved deft at using Sri Lanka's non-aligned status to play allies off each other.

Defiance against Western calls for war crimes probes cost Sri Lanka a European Union trade concession that would have boosted the country's garment business, but Rajapaksa readily turned towards India and China and other nations for support.

Since the end of the war, Rajapaksa has focused on a development drive, reducing a budget deficit and increasing investment to revive the $42 billion economy.

Despite his efforts to implement a political solution for a sustainable peace, extreme elements in his coalition resisted the move before Rajapaksa decided to go for a new mandate, promising to give a solution after the poll.


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