by ‘The Economist,’ UK, January 9, 2015
IN AN election upset unthinkable even weeks ago, Maithripala Sirisena is to become Sri Lanka’s new president. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent since 2005, conceded defeat even before all the votes were counted. Mr Sirisena has won with something more than 51% of the vote, to his opponent’s 48% (around 1% of the vote is split among 17 other candidates). As expected, Mr Sirisena won in constituencies dominated by the Muslim and mainly Hindu Tamil minorities. Tamils have never forgiven Mr Rajapaksa for the brutal way in which the army won its 26-year civil war against the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009. Muslims resent his government’s apparent tolerance of hardline Buddhist groups guilty of harassment and violence.
But Mr Rajapaksa’s share of the votes among the mainly Buddhist, ethnic-Sinhalese majority (some 70% of the population) also fell, despite a thriving economy. The popularity he earned through victory over the Tigers has been eroded by worries about corruption, the cost of living, as well as his autocratic tendencies and penchant for appointing whole branches of his family tree to high office.
After a campaign marred by violence, intimidation and press bias, many of Mr Rajapaksa’s opponents had feared he would cheat to win. In particular they worried he would deploy the army to prevent voters in the Tamil-majority north from reaching the polls. Their suspicion turns out to have been unfounded—or to have underestimated the determination and robustness of the election commission. Turnout was high and Mr Rajapaksa has promised an orderly transfer of power.
In the campaign Mr Rajapaksa had taken to warning voters that Mr Sirisena, who was a member of his cabinet until November, is an “unknown angel”. But voters chose him over the devil they know.
It is true that Mr Sirisena is something of an untested quantity. Certainly he is not an obvious representative of minority rights. He defected from Mr Rajapaksa’s government only in November, one day after having dinner with him. He was acting as defence minister in the final weeks of the war in 2009, and has said that, as president, he would ensure that Mr Rajapaksa and the army do not face war-crimes charges. But as a consensus candidate among a divided opposition, he appealed especially to rural voters: he calls himself a farmer, speaks only Sinhala and has said he would govern from the agricultural heartland of Polonnaruwa. Mr Sirisena, at 63, is six years younger than the president and has spent four decades in politics.
So he offers a different brand of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, not its repudiation. However, he has promised sweeping changes within 100 days, including constitutional amendments, that would undo some of the changes Mr Rajapaksa oversaw which had seemed to be laying the foundations for a family dynasty: doing away with the limit of two five-year terms on the presidency and giving it yet more executive powers. Some of Mr Sirisena’s other policies sound even more ambitious: the end of corruption; energy security; even a “moral society” without drugs, liquor or cigarettes.
In any event the defeat of Mr Rajapaksa will be welcomed by the West, where concerns about his human-rights record—and the failure either to investigate the end of the war or to attempt true national reconciliation—had led to constant strains in relations. India will also hope for an easier relationship with Sri Lanka under Mr Sirisena, and a weakening of its neighbour’s growing ties with China, which Mr Rajapaksa had nurtured. For its part, China will be shocked at the defeat of a man it has done much to help. It will have to scramble to make friends with the country’s new leader. However his presidency turns out, the victory of Mr Sirisena is also one for democracy, which has turfed out a leader who had used the democratic process to pursue divisive, majoritarian policies, and to build the groundwork for a regime to last in perpetuity.