Rajapakse concedes election defeat as UNP secures 106 seats
August 18 2015 05:54 PM
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Supporters of Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe eat 'Kiribath' milk rice in celebration of the general election in Colombo on Tuesday.

AFP/Colombo

Sri Lanka's former strongman Mahinda Rajapakse admitted his dream of a political comeback was over on Tuesday as parliamentary election results showed a huge surge in support for the party that helped engineer his ouster.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) secured 106 seats, short of a majority in the 225-member assembly but enough to form a government.

The UNP held just 40 seats in the previous parliament and Wickremesinghe said the result was an endorsement of the "January 8 revolution" that removed Rajapakse after a decade in power.

"I thank all those who worked for the victory of the people," said Wickremesinghe, who is now all but certain to continue as prime minister.

"I urge all to unite and help build our nation."

Dream ends

Eight months after his shock defeat in presidential polls, Rajapakse acknowledged there would be no swift return to power in the role of prime minister.

"My dream of becoming prime minister has faded away," Rajapakse told AFP in an early morning phone interview.

"I am conceding. We have lost a good fight."

Rajapakse's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) came second with 95 seats, while the minority Tamil National Alliance (TNA) took 16 seats.

The outcome represents another bitter blow for Rajapakse, who led Sri Lanka for a decade before he was dramatically ousted by his one-time ally Maithripala Sirisena in a January 8 presidential election.

The former health minister united a fractured opposition to pull off an unlikely victory against Rajapakse, who has seen a welter of corruption accusations levelled against him and his close relatives since leaving office.

With none of the smaller parties committing to support a coalition government, the UNP is now expected to look to UPFA members - several of whom are already loyal to Sirisena - for support.

Wickremesinghe's outgoing government, formed after Sirisena's surprise victory, had just 40 seats in the assembly.

It was able to survive with the support of some opposition lawmakers, but persistent blocking by the opposition led Sirisena to call the general election a year ahead of schedule so he could push through promised reforms.

'Difficult fight'  

Wickremesinghe had described Monday's vote as a referendum on Rajapakse, who was bullish about his chances on polling day, but admitted on Tuesday it had been a "difficult fight".

"There were some who criticised me then (January) for conceding so early in the count, but I did it because it was the right thing to do," Rajapakse said of the January polls.

Rajapakse secured a seat in the parliament by standing for the north-western district of Kurunegala after ditching his home constituency of Hambantota, where three of his close family members contested and one of them lost.

The 69-year-old remains hugely popular among large sections of the majority Sinhalese community for presiding over the crushing defeat of Tamil guerrillas in 2009 after their 37-year war for a separate homeland.

But he remains a polarising figure on an island still struggling to come to terms with the past.

He was shunned by Western governments over the brutal end to the island's ethnic conflict, and remains deeply unpopular among its Tamil and Muslim minorities.

The perception that nepotism and corruption flourished during his administration also damaged his political reputation.

As president, Rajapakse cultivated close ties with China during his decade in power, but Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have been trying to steer Colombo away from Beijing's close embrace and have made concerted efforts to improve ties with giant neighbour India.

Since his surprise victory over his former mentor, Sirisena has struggled to impose his authority over his United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) party and was powerless to prevent Rajapakse from standing as one of its candidates.

He threatened to invoke his executive powers to prevent his combative predecessor from becoming prime minister, but Rajapakse was banking on a strong showing to force Sirisena to back down.

Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya said the vote had been one of the most peaceful in Sri Lanka's history.

The mood on the streets was subdued on Tuesday, with celebrations and street processions banned for a week after the polls under Sri Lankan election laws.

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