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Opinion: Sri Lanka elections don't translate into political will

Should incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa fail to seize the opportunity for reform, his re-election could spell disaster.

Supporters cheer as Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa arrives at a final political rally for his presidential campaign in Piliyandala, Jan. 23, 2010. Rajapaksa emerged victorious in the country's first post-war elections on Jan. 26. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa has won a re-election reaping the rewards of his military victory over the Tamil Tigers. But can this wartime president lead his country in an effort to win peace?

Rajapaksa appears to have won Sri Lanka's first post-war national election, which took place Tuesday, according to state media. The president called for early polls — his term does not expire until 2011 — hoping for an easy win after he managed to defeat the Tamil Tigers last May.

The Tigers, the separatist terrorist organization formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), had engaged the country's armed forces in a nearly three decades-long bloody civil war. But to his surprise the president had to fight hard to validate his victory after his former army chief, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, decided to challenge him in the election. Shortly after the results were announced, Fonseka demanded a new vote even as he was holed up in a Colombo five-star hotel, surrounded by government commandoes.

Now, Rajapaksa has to prove whether he will continue to conduct himself as a wartime president or focus on rebuilding a nation ravaged by ethnic differences. Even though his government defeated the LTTE last May, there is little indication the country is no longer at war. The emergency powers remain in effect allowing for detention without charge or trial, and restrictions on civil liberties, freedom of movement and speech. So does the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. The current political system of executive presidency concentrates too much power at the center with little authority to the provinces. The president enjoys almost unlimited power over state resources. Press freedom is restricted; last June the government reactivated the Sri Lanka Press Council Act of 1973 allowing strict control over the media. In yet another display of intolerance, just hours before the election results, the government blocked access to some independent news websites.

Sri Lanka's political culture too, mired in corruption and nepotism, remains a concern. Political parties remain fragmented and in particular, after living for decades under the shadow of the LTTE, today the Tamil community finds itself on the margins of the electorate without a unified political voice or the presence of any serious Tamil political parties.