COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday won his second war in a year, crushing an electoral challenge by the former army chief who broke ranks with him just months after they claimed victory over Tamil rebels.
The veteran politician, 64, defied forecasts he would race to a photo finish with General Sarath Fonseka, turning in a 57.8 percent tally against the popular soldier’s 40.2 percent.
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 victory.
Rajapaksa became Sri Lanka’s youngest-ever legislator in 1970 at the age of 24, and has served as both labour minister and prime minister.
Although Rajapaksa is comfortable moving among the people, quick with a joke or a pat on the back, he has displayed steely resolve at times and the ability to beat back opponents.
He worked quickly to sideline 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 who in May triumphantly announced that Sri Lanka’s entire land mass was under government control for the first time in 25 years, cornering him on Wednesday with soldiers inside a Colombo hotel.
A lawyer by trade who habitually wears the traditional dress of white knee-length shirt, sarong and a red sash, Rajapaksa hails from the southern coastal district of Hambantota, where Chinese companies are now building a massive port.
While Fonseka and the rest of the armed forces fought to crush the rebels, Rajapaksa stood firm against international pressure and demonstrated deftness 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 $40 billion economy.
Despite his efforts to implement a political solution for a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka, extreme elements in his coalition resisted the move before Rajapaksa decided to go for a fresh mandate, promising to give a solution after the poll.
Editing by Bryson Hull and Paul Tait