Buoyed by a landslide margin of nearly 2 million votes, President-elect Chandrika Kumaratunga on Thursday claimed a “clear and massive mandate” to press on with her quest for a peaceful end to Sri Lanka’s 11-year civil war.
In a ballot-box rout that political observers said is without precedent in this Indian Ocean island’s history, Kumaratunga, the prime minister from the left-leaning People’s Alliance, emerged victorious in a six-way race, beating her closest rival from the main opposition United National Party by 4,709,205 votes to 2,715,283, official results showed.
Her 62.28% score in her successful bid for the powerful executive presidency was the crescendo of an electoral career that began in earnest only in May of last year, when the 49-year-old daughter of two former Sri Lankan prime ministers scored an upset victory in a provincial council election.
This August, the widowed mother of two led the People’s Alliance to a narrow win in national parliamentary elections, ending a 17-year chokehold on power by the UNP, which had used murder and mob violence to safeguard its rule.
“We, I think, have come to the end of the dark tunnel, and we are marching toward a new era of freedom and light,” said an emotional Kumaratunga, clad in a blue and white sari, after Wednesday’s election results were announced.
But the president-elect warned supporters that even if they suffered when the UNP held power, she will not brook any revenge-seeking.
“It is true that for 17 long years you have bottled up the anger of much political victimization and harassment,” Kumaratunga said. “But the answer to that is not to repeat the same barbaric style of acting.”
After a violence-marred campaign, an island-wide curfew starting at 2 p.m. was imposed for the second straight day Thursday to prevent further disorder, and the rain-lashed streets of this seaside capital were practically devoid of cars and pedestrians.
After the Oct. 24 assassination of her principal opponent, Gamini Dissanayake, the pivotal issue of the presidential campaign became the policy of Kumaratunga’s 2 1/2-month-old government toward the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who control enclaves in the east and the northern Jaffna peninsula. They are widely suspected of carrying out Dissanayake’s murder.
In an overt bid for the sympathy vote of members of the island’s Buddhist Sinhalese majority, the UNP put up the slain Parliament member’s 51-year-old widow, attorney Srima Dissanayake, as its candidate. In its crudest campaign rhetoric, it also told Sri Lankans that a vote for Kumaratunga would be a vote for the Liberation Tigers.
The huge majority the prime minister won in the so-called battle of the widows showed that the UNP gambit miscarried badly. The main opposition party lost in all 22 polling districts, whereas Kumaratunga garnered a clear majority among all main voter groups: the Sinhalese, Muslims and Hindu Tamils.
Her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was Sri Lanka’s first female prime minister, and now Kumaratunga will become this country’s first female president.
Last month, she sent emissaries to Jaffna to begin the Sri Lankan government’s first contacts in more than four years with the Liberation Tigers. After Dissanayake’s death, she broke off the preliminary talks until possible rebel responsibility could be probed.
Her government has been scrupulously careful not to pin responsibility for the suicide bombing that killed Dissanayake and 54 others on the Liberation Tigers. Just as prudently, Kumaratunga did not say Thursday whether she intends to resume the talks, or what she will do if the insurgents’ complicity in the killings is proved. But she said she is as determined as ever to forge ahead with the “peace process” to end the ethnic war that has claimed more than 30,000 lives since 1983.
“We shall take this as a clear mandate from you, the people of this country, the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, and all the other people living in this country, belonging to all races, to all religions, to all communities, for our government to forge ahead with peace,” she said. “But not peace at any cost; negotiated peace where the rights of the majority Sinhalese people would be safeguarded and strengthened, but where we would build a society where all the peoples of this country could live with equal rights, without fear and in brotherhood and with freedom.”
The sentiments of Tamils in lands controlled by the Liberation Tigers were unknown, as the guerrillas did not allow them to vote. The war also continued, impervious to the election, with a clash reported in the northern town of Penilankulam in which two rebels were slain by government soldiers.
Both Kumaratunga’s father, former Prime Minister Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, and her actor-politician husband, Vijaya Kumaratunga, died at the hands of assassins.
Her victory, Kumaratunga said, “is the victory of millions of people in this country who watched and waited in silence during nearly two decades of harassment, political victimization, of state terror and violence.”
She is expected to be sworn in Saturday as successor to outgoing President Dingiri Banda Wijetunga of the UNP, and in theory could serve for six years. But on Thursday, she repeated a pledge to abolish the powerful office she had just won, and set herself a deadline of July 15. Kumaratunga has said the executive presidency created in 1978 is a temptation to the abuse of power, and that most of its functions should be transferred to the Parliament, prime minister or Cabinet.