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Prime Minister Wins Sri Lankan Presidential Election

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Voters in Sri Lanka have chosen a new president. The country's hard-line prime minister eked out a narrow victory in yesterday's election. He's now faced with rescuing a faltering peace process with the Tamil Tiger rebels and repairing an economy hurt by the tsunami. We're joined from Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, by NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves.

And, Philip, tell us about the victor, how he won and why it's important.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Mahinda Rajapakse won because he got the support of Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority, who saw the position on the peace process of his opponent, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is the leader of the opposition, as too soft. And the second reason is that the ethnic Tamils didn't vote. In the north and east of Sri Lanka, which is their heartland, the turnout was low. In fact, in one city in the north, Jaffna, there was a less-than-1 percent turnout. Now Wickremesinghe had hoped for the Tamil vote, but the Tamil Tigers, although they didn't actually announce a boycott, they simply said they had no interest in the election, and it appears that this turned into a de facto boycott among Tamils. There are also reports that in Tiger-held territory, voters were actually stopped from going to vote by roadblocks and burning tires and so on.

MONTAGNE: Now there is a peace process under way between the Tamil Tiger rebels, the separatists, and the government, but what does the victory of this hard-liner mean for that?

REEVES: Some analysts are saying that this is the lowest point in the peace process since there was a cease-fire signed in 2002. Now that cease-fire's taken a big battering for a long time with frequent violations and the assassination in August of the foreign minister, an attack that was blamed on the Tamil Tigers. Rajapakse is viewed as a hard-liner on dealing with the Tamil Tigers. He says that he will make what he calls an honorable peace, but his position is seen as being influenced by some of the Sinhalese hard-liners that he allied himself with as he approached this election. He's also said he's unwilling to see the division of Sri Lanka and that any autonomy for the Tamils would be within a unitary, centralized government, and it's unclear and unlikely that that will satisfy the Tamil Tigers.

MONTAGNE: Meaning what? They go back to fighting?

REEVES: Well, the worry among nonpartisan observers is not so much a return to outright civil war. The country's exhausted by the conflict. It's held the economy back for years. The concern really is that Sri Lanka will stagnate, there'll be sporadic violence and it'll prevent Sri Lanka from enjoying the boom that's been experienced by other Asian neighbors. And we saw a sense of this when the news of Rajapakse's victory came out today. The stock markets dived 7 percent with that news, although that's partly a reflection of what's perceived to be his protectionist economic policies.

MONTAGNE: Sri Lanka was very badly hit by last December's tsunami, and since then, there have been disputes over the distribution of aid money. Is this likely to be affected by this new president?

REEVES: This is a really big issue here. A few months ago, the Sri Lankan government signed a deal on sharing tsunami aid, of which it received $3 1/2 billion from the international community, with the Tamil Tigers, and that was seen as very significant politically, a chance for a new level of cooperation. But Sinhalese hard-liners went to court and that agreement was put on ice. Rajapakse, who had Sinhalese hard-liners as his allies, is not thought likely to revive that agreement, and indeed, has reportedly said he won't.

MONTAGNE: Philip, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Philip Reeves in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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