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Sri Lankan Prime Minister Wins Presidential Poll

18 November 2005

Sri Lanka's election commission has declared Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse the winner of the country's presidential election. Mr. Rajapakse had campaigned on taking a tough approach with Tamil rebels in the country, throwing the stalled peace process into doubt.

Mahinda Rajapakse won the presidential ballot by margin of less than two percent, or 200,000 votes, over his rival, opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

But that is enough to begin acting on his campaign promises, which included renewing peace talks with the Tamil Tiger rebels.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Rajapakse says for a few decades, Sri Lanka has been suffering from war. But he will stop it by speaking to the Tamil, Muslim and the Sinhalese communities, which he says will bring a lasting peace.

The election victory could mean dramatic changes for the country's peace process with the rebels, who have fought for greater rights for the country's ethnic Tamil minority for more than 20 years.

In 2002, the rebels signed a cease-fire deal with Mr. Wickremesinghe, who was prime minister at the time. Talks aimed at the formation of a federalist government, to allow Tamils more autonomy over their territory stalled in 2003, when the rebels demanded the immediate right to self-government.

During the campaign, Mr. Rajapakse said he would meet with senior members of the Tamil Tigers, called the LTTE, to restart peace negotiations. But he also said he would scrap the 2002 peace plan entirely.

Jehan Perera, of the peace advocacy group the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, calls the idea potentially dangerous.

"A federal solution has been agreed in principle by Mr. Wickremesinghe's party, by Mr. Rajapakse's own party, and also by the LTTE," he explained. "So I think it is something on which there is a great deal of consensus. What has happened is Mr. Rajapakse has changed his party's policy and gone backward to a time before the peace process developed."

Mr. Rajapakse's victory sent jitters through the Sri Lankan stock market, where the key share index plunged seven percent.

Overall, voter turnout in the presidential poll was 75 percent. But in the northern region of Jaffna, which is home to much of the country's ethnic Tamil minority, voter turnout was less than one percent.

Rebels from the Tamil Tiger guerrilla group had enforced an unofficial boycott in the region, intimidating voters and preventing them from going to polling stations. The rebels had dismissed the election as meaningless, because they said it would only perpetuate rule by Sri Lanka's ethnic-Sinhalese government over the Tamil minority.

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