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Sirisena Unseats Rajapaksa in Stunning Sri Lankan Presidential Election Result

The decisive result boots from office the country’s president since 2005, who had confidently called a snap election in October with two years left to go in his term.
Photo via AP/Eranga Jayawardena

Sri Lankans decisively elected Maithripala Sirisena as their president on Thursday, delivering a shocking outcome that few analysts would have predicted weeks ago.

The decisive result boots from office incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country's president since 2005, whom most observers expected to coast to victory when he confidently called a snap election in October with two years left in his term. But Rajapaksa attracted increasing criticism for his iron grip and less-and-democratic rule on the island, and had clearly overestimated his popularity.

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On Friday morning, hours before official results showed Sirisena handily defeating him by slightly less than 450,000 votes, Rajapaksa conceded to his former health minister, who had bolted from his government to run as the opposition candidate after the election was scheduled. Sri Lanka's election commission reported that Sirisena received 51.7 percent of the vote to Rajapaksa's 47.6 percent.

Rajapaksa still won the lion's share of votes from the country's Sinhalese Buddhist majority, but former farmer Sirisena was able to capture enough of their support in rural areas to win. He otherwise relied heavily on votes from Sri Lanka's frustrated minority communities, winning overwhelming pluralities in Muslim and Tamil regions of the country. The two groups represent about 25 percent of Sri Lanka's population.

Political violence returns to Sri Lanka ahead of presidential election. Read more here.

Critics had accused Rajapaksa of corruption, fostering dynastic rule, and distributing important government posts to family members, and were fearful that he would attempt a power play if faced with defeat. To their surprise, he left his official residence early Friday "to allow the new president to assume his duties," in the words of a government spokesperson. Sirisena was sworn in several hours later, bringing the Rajapaksa era to an abrupt end — at least officially.

I value and respect our democratic process and the people's verdict, and look forward to the peaceful transition of power. -MR

— Mahinda Rajapaksa (@PresRajapaksa)January 9, 2015

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"I commend President Rajapaksa for accepting the results of the election in the proud tradition of peaceful and orderly transfers of power in Sri Lanka," US Secretary of State John Kerry remarked in a statement.

The seeming ease with which Sri Lanka's longest serving president left office was unexpected by many observers who had grown accustomed to his authoritativeness. During his decade in office, Rajapaksa abolished term limits and consolidated the government in the hands of an already powerful "executive presidency." Critics argued that he undermined the judiciary and rule of law and weakened press freedoms. Sirisena has promised to do away with the country's executive presidency and delegate more power to its parliament.

Despite concerns over pre-election violence, the poll was conducted in relative peace, with more than 70% percent of the electorate turning out.

In an odd arrangement, Supreme Court Justice K. Sri Pawan swore Sirisena into office rather than Chief Justice Mohan Peiris, a former Rajapaksa adviser who had been appointed by the outgoing president.

The former health minister was for decades a close Rajapaksa confidante and member of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party before he left to lead the New Democratic Front in November. Though Sirisena criticized his colleague over the economy and questions of corruption during the brief campaign, he did not signal a shift in government policy over alleged war crimes committed against civilians during the country's three decade war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a rebel group commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, which fought to carve out a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka's North and East. Rajapaksa's administration brought the war to a brutal end in 2009.

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Sri Lanka's president doesn't want the UN investigating war crimes in his country. Read more here.

Rajapaksa repeatedly rebuffed a United Nations human rights inquiry into the waning period of the war, when an estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed, mostly by government shelling. The Sri Lankan military continues to occupy Tamil areas, part of what some residents see as a Sinhalese colonization of those regions. Sirisena, a Sinhalese Buddhist, says he will not cooperate with the UN investigation, which could implicate officials that include Rajapaksa and his brother Gotayaba, who oversaw the defeat of the Tigers as minister of defense.

A UN spokesperson said Friday that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had congratulated Sirisena, but added he would "continue to press the point" on the investigation with the new president.

Tamils largely boycotted the 2005 presidential poll and voted in small numbers in 2010, when Rajapaksa rode a wave of post-war support to a landslide victory.

This time, however, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) — country's largest Tamil umbrella political party — threw its weight behind Sirisena, as did the country's largest Muslim parties whose members had grown alienated by Rajapaksa's support of hardline Buddhist groups like the Bodu Bala Sena, which in recent years fomented deadly riots.

Meet the violent Buddhists starting riots in Sri Lanka. Read more here.

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That Sirisena's mandate was handed to him largely via minority support will likely prove a thorny issue for Sirisena, who has to maintain alliances with Buddhist political parties in the country's parliament, which will hold elections in the coming months.

Rohini Mohan, an Indian political journalist who spent several years in Tamil areas and wrote about the war's aftermath in her book The Seasons of Trouble, said the election was bittersweet for many of the people she had spoken with.

"Tamils would blame themselves for Rajapaksa coming to power — many call it the biggest mistake of their lives," she told VICE News, referring to the decision to boycott the 2005 election. "It wasn't easy to support Sirisena, however."

TNA leader R. Sampanthan congratulated Sirisena on his victory, but said that he "has to address urgently many grave issues the country faces, including an honorable resolution of the national question so as to enable Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka to be true beneficiaries of democracy."

Tamil politicians have long advocated devolution of political power in the north, something Sirisena has not said he will consider.

"If he was the kind of leader who people are hoping he would be, he would take note of his support among other groups and be one of the first leaders in decades that sees minorities as not just a problem but part of the citizenry with issues that need to be addressed," said Mohan. "It's not just the war but the systemic discrimination they've faced, and the brunt of Buddhist supremacy they've had to deal with."

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"Knowing their support is important electorally might change how governance will work," she added. "Without them he could not have won, which is a sad way to win relevance, but that's how politics work."

Rajapaksa fostered close ties with China during his presidency and received billions in foreign investment from them, mostly through loans for large infrastructure projects. A Chinese firm is currently constructing a Beijing-financed $1.4 billion mega-port project in Colombo.

Chinese influence became a central issue during the campaign, and Sirisena indicated he might scrap some of Rajapaksa's infrastructure deals. Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who will likely take over as prime minister under Sirisena, has criticized what he called "haphazard reclamation" of the local environment as part of the Colombo port project.

China reacted tepidly to Sirisena's win.

"We hope and we believe the new Sri Lankan government will carry on the friendly policies towards China and lend their support to relevant projects to make sure those projects are successful," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a Friday press conference.

Meanwhile, in India, much of the talk was devoted to whether Sirisena's election would see a shift back towards Sri Lanka's traditional partner in the region. In a series of tweets, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that he had spoken with Sirisena and congratulated him on his victory.

As a close friend & neighbour, reaffirmed India's continued solidarity & support for Sri Lanka's peace, development & prosperity.

— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi)January 9, 2015

Despite his electoral victory, Sirisena by no means excised Rajapaksa's influence in Sri Lanka's government in one fell swoop. Democratic and judicial systems were significantly compromised as success or failure became contingent on good relations with Rajapaksa and his relatives, with many government posts stacked with his supporters.

"It's very hard to remove those tentacles that are everywhere," said Mohan. "His stepping down in a symbolic way may not be the end of it."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford