COLOMBO • Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa's attempt to stage a comeback in Sri Lanka's general election has ended in defeat as election results showed a huge surge in support for the party that helped engineer his ousting.
The country's ruling United National Party (UNP) secured 106 seats, short of a majority in the 225-member assembly, but enough to form a government.
"I invite all of you to join hands," Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, 66, said in a statement. "Let us together build a civilised society, build a consensual government and create a new country."
The outcome is a triumph for President Maithripala Sirisena, who beat his former ally, Mr Rajapaksa, in a presidential vote in January this year and called early parliamentary polls to secure a stronger mandate for reforms.
The power struggle between the past and present presidents overshadowed the polls, in a country with a history of political feuding.
The alliance led by Mr Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) came in second with 95 seats, while the minority Tamil National Alliance (TNA) took 16 seats after suffering losses.
A nationalist strongman, Mr Rajapaksa had set his sights on becoming premier of an SLFP-led government, but Mr Sirisena, who succeeded him as party leader in January, had ruled that out and purged Rajapaksa loyalists from senior posts.
Yesterday, Mr Rajapaksa secured a seat in Parliament by standing in the north-western district of Kurunegala after ditching his home constituency of Hambantota, where three of his close family members contested and one of them lost.
A group of Sirisena followers is expected to join a broad-based national unity government led by Mr Wickremesinghe, who is likely to be confirmed in his post.
"The UNP will not have an overall majority - it will have to look for coalition partners from those who support Sirisena,"said Mr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.
With outside support, the centre-right alliance could hope to muster the two-thirds majority required to pass proposed constitutional reforms that would make the government more accountable and simplify Sri Lanka's complex election laws.
The power struggle between the past and present presidents overshadowed the polls, in a country with a history of political feuding that has often spilled over into violence and even assassination of its leaders.
But Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya called the latest vote one of the most peaceful in Sri Lanka's history.
The mood on the streets yesterday was subdued, as celebrations and street processions are banned for a week after polls under Sri Lankan election laws.
A backlash against Mr Rajapaksa's attempt to win an unprecedented third term led support to coalesce around his former health minister Sirisena, a humble figure with none of the muscular bravado of his predecessor.
The 69-year-old Mr Rajapaksa, expected to lead a rump parliamentary opposition, could now be confronted with a judicial reckoning, along with two brothers who held high office, for alleged corruption and abuse of power during his decade in power. They have denied any wrongdoing.
"Mahinda has to compromise - resign from politics and Parliament, and settle down as a former president - or face the legal consequences," said a Sirisena aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Defeat for Mr Rajapaksa will also keep Sri Lanka on a non-aligned foreign policy course and loosen its ties with China which, during his rule, pumped billions of dollars into turning the Indian Ocean island into a maritime outpost.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE