COLOMBO - Sri Lanka's Mahinda Rajapakse has conceded defeat in presidential elections, officials said Thursday, after a bitter campaign that saw Asia's longest-serving leader brought down by allegations of corruption and a failure to bring about post-war reconciliation.
After the island's tightest presidential vote in decades, a top aide to Rajapakse said the one-time strongman accepted the decision of voters who turned out in force on Thursday.
"The president concedes defeat and will ensure a smooth transition of power, bowing to the wishes of the people," presidential press secretary Vijayananda Herath told AFP, adding that he had already vacated his main official residence in a symbolic gesture of defeat.
Official sources said opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena, a former minister who united a fractured opposition to pull off an unlikely victory, had an unassailable lead in results announced so far.
With nearly a third of the ballots officially declared, Sirisena has 52.49 per cent of the vote and Rajapakse 46.21 per cent.
"The president has seen a clear majority for the opposition candidate and there is no way to overcome that," a source close to the outgoing president said.
Herath said Rajapakse had conceded defeat during a meeting with Ranil Wickremesinghe, who leads the opposition in parliament and who Sirisena has said would be appointed as his prime minister.
Opposition lawmaker Harsha de Silva said transitional arrangements were being discussed with Rajapakse, and that Wickremesinghe had "guaranteed him and his family security".
There was no immediate comment from Sirisena who was still at his private home in Polonnaruwa, east of the capital Colombo.
Rajapakse had seemed assured of victory when he called snap polls in November seeking an unprecedented third term, five years after crushing a violent separatist rebellion that had traumatised the country for decades.
But he has become unpopular in recent years, dogged by accusations of increasing authoritarianism and corruption, and a failure to reach out to minority Tamils after a decades-long civil war.
Sirisena's surprise decision to defect from the government and stand against him galvanised disparate opposition groups.
Despite sporadic campaign violence including the death of one opposition party worker, the vote passed off largely peacefully, although there were some reports of intimidation in Tamil areas.
Police said they had made 175 election-related arrests, but described the polls as some of the most peaceful in Sri Lanka's recent history.
The president had come under international pressure after opposition reports that he was mobilising the military, with US Secretary of State John Kerry this week urging him to ensure the election was peaceful and credible.
The polls came days before a visit to the island by Pope Francis which some Catholic leaders had said should be cancelled in the event of violence.
Election monitors said large numbers of people had voted in the heavily militarised former war zones of the north and east, whose largely Tamil population had boycotted previous national elections.
The head of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections Keerthi Thennakoon said before Rajapakse's concession that the high participation could favour the opposition.
Tamils are Sri Lanka's largest minority, accounting for 13 per cent of the population, and were in a position to decide the election if the majority Sinhalese vote split between Rajapakse and his main opponent.
Sirisena was a relative unknown until he became the main opposition candidate, but his decision to run triggered a slew of defections and become a rallying point for disaffection with Rajapakse and his powerful family.
Rajapakse won a landslide election victory in 2010, but critics say he has failed to bring about reconciliation in the years that followed his crushing victory over the Tamil Tiger separatist group in 2009.
Rajapakse had promised a judicial inquiry into allegations troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war, although he had refused to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation.
The 69-year-old president removed the two-term limit on the presidency and gave himself more powers soon after winning his second term.
Opposition figures accused the president of skimming large amounts of money from infrastructure projects funded through expensive foreign loans, often from China, his strongest foreign political and economic ally.
He is also accused of undermining the independence of the judiciary and has packed the government with relatives, sparking resentment even within his own party.