Sirisena sworn in as Sri Lanka’s new president
Maithripala Sirisena was sworn in as Sri Lankan president Friday after a shock victory over veteran strongman Mahinda Rajapakse in an election dominated by charges of corruption and growing authoritarianism.
Sirisena took the oath of office hours after Rajapakse conceded defeat, saying he accepted the decision of Sri Lankans who turned out in force on Thursday to vote him out after 10 years in office.
Sirisena said Sri Lanka would mend its ties with the international community, in a clear reference to Rajapakse’s falling out with the West over allegations of wartime rights abuses by the military.
Sri Lanka’s newly-elected president Maithripala Sirisena gestures after being sworn in at Independence Square in Colombo, on January 9, 2015 ©Ishara S. Kodikara (AFP)
“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,” he said.
“We will work with friendship and brotherhood and cooperation with all states.”
Celebratory firecrackers were heard in Colombo as Sirisena was sworn in on the capital’s Independence Square along with the new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe.
“People want a new political culture. I don’t want anyone taking the law into their own hands,” Wickremesinghe, the head of the opposition United National Party (UNP), told a press conference.
Sirisena, a former health minister who united a fractured opposition to pull off an unlikely victory, thanked Rajapakse for a “fair election that allowed me to be the president”.
He was elected with 51.28 percent of the votes, to the former leader’s 47.58 percent.
It was a remarkable setback for a leader who had appeared certain of victory when he called snap polls in November.
US President Barack Obama praised the “successful and peaceful” vote and congratulated the outgoing administration on a “swift and orderly transfer of power”.
“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,” Obama said.
– Sweeping reforms –
Sirisena has promised sweeping reforms of the presidency and said he will transfer many of its executive powers to parliament.
He said he would serve only one term after being elected on a tide of resentment against Rajapakse.
The former leader rewrote the constitution after his re-election in 2010 to remove the two-term limit on the presidency and give himself more powers over public servants and judges.
During the campaign, Sirisena said he had warned Rajapakse to change his ways or risk new unrest in the country.
“He was leading the country down a dangerous road to destruction,” he said at one point, promising a “constitutional revolution” if elected.
Rajapakse enjoyed huge support among majority Sinhalese voters after overseeing the end of a separatist war by ethnic Tamil rebels in 2009.
But critics say he failed to bring about reconciliation in the years that followed his crushing victory over the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.
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.
Rajapakse fell out with the West over allegations his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war, and refused to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation.
He cultivated close links with China, which has invested heavily in Sri Lanka, seeking to counter rival regional power India’s influence.
Beijing on Friday downplayed suggestions the new leadership could impact its projects in Sri Lanka.
The opposition has promised to address international concerns over war crimes and normalise relations with Western nations and India, whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Sirisena.
– Vote for peace –
Sirisena’s decision to run triggered a slew of defections and became a rallying point for disaffection with Rajapakse and his powerful family.
His vision for the country ties in closely with the free-market policies of the centre-right UNP which provided him with the political base to contest the election.
But analysts say he faces a challenge to unite the rainbow coalition of parties from right-wingers to Marxists that helped him secure victory.
The vote passed off largely peacefully, although there were some reports of intimidation in Tamil areas.
The president had come under international pressure, with Washington urging him to ensure peaceful and credible polls.
The election 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 Tamil-dominated former war zones of the north and east, which are heavily militarised.
Tamils are Sri Lanka’s largest minority, accounting for 13 percent of the population and helped bring down Rajapakse by supporting his rival.
“We voted to get our dignity back,” said a Tamil journalist who asked not to be named.
“We may have good roads and a new railway line, but what we want is to live in peace.”
Sri Lanka’s outgoing president Mahinda Rajapakse waves as he leaves his office in Colombo, on January 9, 2015
Sri Lankan police carry ballot boxes to be transferred to a main counting centre following the country’s presidential election in Colombo on January 8, 2015 ©Lakruwan Wanniarachchi (AFP)
Supporters of Sri Lanka’s newly elected president Maithripala Sirisena hold up his poster as they celebrate his election victory on the streets of Colombo, on January 9, 2015 ©Lakruwan Wanniarachchi (AFP)
Supporters of Sri Lanka’s Maithripala Sirisena celebrate in the streets of Colombo after Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse conceded defeat in the country’s presidential election on January 9, 2015 ©Munir Uz Zaman (AFP)
A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard as newly-elected president Maithripala Sirisena is sworn into office at Independence Square in Colombo, on January 9, 2015 ©Ishara S. Kodikara (AFP)