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Sri Lanka declares president reelected by wide margin

By Lydia Polgreen
New York Times / January 28, 2010

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s president, was reelected by a wide margin, election officials said yesterday, defeating the newly retired army general who had tried to lay claim to Rajapaksa’s biggest political victory, the defeat of the Tamil Tiger insurgency.

Official results gave Rajapaksa an 18-point advantage over Sarath Fonseka, his nearest opponent and the general who carried out the successful military operation against the Tigers. Fonseka rejected the result, saying the electoral campaign had been marred by violence and irregularities in the vote counting.

“The enthusiasm of the people we noticed in the campaign is not reflected in the result,’’ Fonseka said at a news conference.

Independent Sri Lankan election monitors said there was no evidence of major fraud in the voting, but left open the possibility of problems in the counting.

More broadly, election observers and advocacy groups have questioned the fundamental fairness of the campaign, accusing Rajapaksa of using state resources to run. State-owned news media all but shut out opposition candidates.

The election results illustrate the still-yawning ethnic and religious divides that plunged Sri Lanka into civil war in the first place, and underscore the difficulties Rajapaksa will face trying to reconcile the country after 26 years of conflict.

Fonseka spent the day secluded in a five-star hotel, which the government surrounded with commandos, saying they had been placed there for security reasons. He said he feared for his safety.

“They are trying to make me a prisoner,’’ Fonseka said, addressing a conference room packed with journalists. “They have made things very clear today.’’

Lucien Rajakarunanyake, a government spokesman, rejected the suggestion that Fonseka was in danger, saying the troops outside the hotel were merely for safety. “He is free to leave at any time,’’ the spokesman said.

Rajapaksa won a large majority, but Tamil and Muslim voters largely rejected him.

He pledged to be a president for all Sri Lankans, an apparent effort to reach out to Tamils.

“Six million people voted for me,’’ Rajapaksa said at a news conference in his office last evening. “Even the people who voted for other candidates, I have to look after their interests.’’