An acrimonious election campaign and a disputed result provides an ominous start for what was meant to be a new era for Sri Lanka, after more than a quarter century of civil war. A country of rich potential had – indeed it still has – the opportunity to make a new beginning, following the conclusive defeat of the Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009. But the vote has underlined the deep and persisting divisions between the minority Tamils and the Sinhalese majority.
There is scant likelihood that the ostensibly clear cut victory of incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa will be overturned by the courts as his opponent, the retired general Sarath Fonseka, is demanding. But a huge responsibility now rests upon both men to drop their destructive feud. The loser must accept the outcome, despite evidence of irregularities. And Mr Rajapaksa must fulfil his post-election promise to be the president of all Sri Lankans, Tamils and Muslims included, and not merely of the Sinhalese community which gave him victory.
In the months since the triumph that broke the rebel Tamil Tigers' control of Tamil politics, there have been growing complaints about the president's autocratic style of government, and of nepotism and corruption within its ranks. Such were Tamil anxieties that the Tamil National Alliance, a moderate grouping that had urged a negotiated end to the civil war, actually supported General Fonseka, the man who had led the military campaign in Tamil north and eastern Sir Lanka and a Sinhalese himself, as the one hope of holding Mr Rajapaksa in check.
That hope has come to nothing. Instead there was the disquieting spectacle of armed commandos surrounding the hotel where General Fonseka was staying during the count, ostensibly to protect him, but more pertinently a blunt reminder of where power in Sri Lanka ultimately lies.
The president must now make real moves towards a genuinely democratic and inclusive state. In that case, Sri Lanka may flourish as never before. The alternative is a resurgence of minority grievances against an overweening Sinhalese majority, that might lead to renewed Tamil militancy, perhaps even war.