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Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa concedes defeat in bid to become PM

ABC Radio Australia - August 19, 2015

Sri Lanka's former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa has conceded defeat in parliamentary elections, ending his hopes of returning to power just months after he was toppled as president.

"My dream of becoming prime minister has faded away," Mr Rajapaksa said. "I am conceding. We have lost a good fight."

Final results showed Sri Lanka's ruling United National Party (UNP) won decisive gains, putting it in a position to form a stable government after eight months of minority rule.

Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's centre-right party won 106 seats, seven short of a clear majority in the 225-member parliament, election officials said.

Still, Mr Wickremesinghe should be able to control parliament with the support of allies of president Maithripala Sirisena.

"I invite all of you to join hands," Mr Wickremesinghe said in a statement. "Let us together build a civilised society, build a consensual government and create a new country."

The UNP, which won 45.7 per cent of the popular vote, was ahead of the 95 seats (42.4 per cent) won by the opposition alliance led by ex-president Mr Rajapaksa.

Defeat for Mr Rajapaksa will keep Sri Lanka on a non-aligned foreign policy course and loosen its ties with China, which during his rule pumped in billions of dollars to try to turn the Indian Ocean island into a maritime outpost.

The election outcome was welcomed by investors, who drove up local shares to seven-month highs on hopes that a stronger government would step up the pace of reforms and repair strained public finances.

"The policy stability created by the election result is positive and will reduce uncertainty," said Prithviraj Srinivas, an economist at HSBC.

Mr Rajapaksa led Sri Lanka for a decade before he was dramatically ousted as president by Mr Sirisena in January. He had expressed confidence he could return to power as prime minister.

"There were some who criticised me then for conceding so early in the count, but I did it because it was the right thing to do," Mr Rajapaksa said of the January polls. "This time too we have lost."

Mr Sirisena called the election a year ahead of schedule in a bid to strengthen his numbers in the parliament so he could push through promised reforms.

Election officials said they expected to release final party positions by noon Tuesday (local time), while individual votes garnered by candidates would be announced later. Rajapaksa a polarising figure

Mr Rajapaksa 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 the 69-year-old 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.

Mr Rajapaksa secured a seat in the parliament by standing from the north-western district of Kurunegala after ditching his home constituency of Hambantota, where three of his close family members contested.

His main rival, Mr Wickremesinge, described Monday's vote as a referendum on a return to politics by Mr Rajapaksa, telling reporters he was confident of forming a new government that could "consolidate the January 8 revolution" a reference to Mr Sirisena's victory.

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

The vote was described by election officials as 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. (AFP/Reuters)

Source: http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/international/2015-08-18/former-sri-lankan-president-mahinda-rajapaksa-concedes-defeat-in-bid-to-become-pm/1482930.

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