Sri Lanka wakes up to new era under President Sirisena
Early, the streets of Colombo were quiet. Then came scattered firecrackers, then small groups cheering and singing. Until finally, at dusk on Friday came the swearing in, with thousands coming to see Maithripala Sirisena become president of Sri Lanka.
Though the final results from historic polls had shown the former health minister the clear victor over incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, it had taken hours for the news to sink in across the commercial and cultural capital.
The result, which surprised many observers, ends a decade of Rajapaksa rule that critics said had become increasingly authoritarian and marred by nepotism and corruption.
“When I woke up today, the first thing I realised is the lack of fear. People were not scared to talk,” said Selyna Peiris, 28, a Colombo lawyer.
Analysts described the election as the most significant for decades in the island nation and a last chance for democracy.
Many had predicted widespread violence before and after polling. In the event, the poll itself went smoothly with the turnout exceeding 81% – a record.
Rajapaksa, who had called early elections confident of a win, conceded defeat early on Friday morning and vacated his official residence hours before the official announcement. The final count gave Sirisena 51.2% of the votes.
The 63-year-old told his supporters that they shouldn’t “even hurt anybody’s feelings. The honour of this victory is in your peaceful conduct.”.
Sirisena, a veteran politician and former farmer who resigned from the government to lead the opposition, had announced his candidacy hours after Rajapaksa, 69, called the election in November. He united a fractured opposition and told voters he would root out corruption and repeal constitutional reforms that have concentrated powers on the presidency.
In successive campaign speeches he attacked the Rajapaksa clan for seeking to perpetuate dynastic rule. Three Rajapaksa brothers held senior posts and the president’s 28-year-old son was widely seen as being groomed as an heir.
Observers said the unexpected challenge from Sirisena destabilised the incumbents. “It definitely threw them. They’ve not been on their game,” said Alan Keenan, of the International Crisis Group.
Rajapaksa won easily in 2010, surfing a wave of popularity after overseeing a final bloody victory over ethnic Tamil separatists and ending a crippling 26-year civil war. He was seeking an unprecedented third term, having pushed through a constitutional amendment.
“We should also not forget President Rajapaksa was beneficial to the country, especially during his first term,” said Nayanajith Thilakarathne, an auto spare-parts dealer in Colombo.
The decision to seek early polls may have been more a recognition of growing unpopularity than a show of strength, however. The benefits of economic growth have failed to reach the poor, especially in rural areas, and there was anger at corruption and apparent nepotism.
“Good governance is the most important issue now,” said Fritz Fernandez, a lecturer in the capital. “The common man should feel that rule of law applies to everyone across the board without any discrimination.”
An adamant refusal to act on reconciliation with the Tamil minority and growing sectarian violence denied Rajapaksa votes among other constituencies.
Votes from the Tamil-dominated former war zone in the country’s north and in areas with large Muslim communities appear to have played a key role in Sirisena’s victory. According to one report, in the Tamil stronghold of Kilinochchi, Sirisena got nearly three-quarters of the vote.
Rajapaksa was also blamed for successive crackdowns – including alleged murders – of opponents, human rights campaigners and other critics. He also fell out with the west over war crimes allegations involving the deaths of many thousands of Tamil civilians in the final phases of the civil war in 2009, and refused to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation, becoming increasingly close to China.
Sirisena said on Friday: “We will have a foreign policy that will mend our ties with the international community and all international organisations in order that we derive maximum benefit for our people.”
Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, said he had spoken to Sirisena to congratulate him. The Indian high commissioner was among the first to visit the new president. Observers said this signalled a move by Sri Lanka away from Beijing.
Barack Obama praised the peaceful transfer of power and said the US looked forward to deepening its ties with Sri Lanka. “Beyond the significance of this election to Sri Lanka, it is also a symbol of hope for those who support democracy all around the world,” the US president said.
The next foreign dignitary to travel to Sri Lanka will be Pope Francis, who arrives next week for a three-day visit.
Sirisena, who is from the Sinhala majority, will have to lead a potentially fractious coalition of ethnic, religious, Marxist and centre-right parties, and any prolonged political instability will open the way for a Rajapaksa comeback.
Rajiva Wijesinha, a former member of the Rajapaksa government who defected to Sirisena early in the campaign, said the win was a wonderful achievement.
“People of Sri Lanka have voted and reaffirmed that they want rule of law in this country. I think the main focus of the new president will be what he has stated right in front of his manifesto: that he wants to have an administration of compassion with the inclusion of all communities in the country.”
Sirisena has given no sign that he will differ significantly from his predecessor on issues such as post-war reconciliation or his broadly right-wing economic policy.