Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa has lost his bid for a third term, ending a decade of rule that critics say had become increasingly authoritarian and marred by nepotism and corruption.
Opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, a one-time ally of Mr Rajapaksa who defected in November and derailed what the president thought would be an easy win, took 51.3 per cent of the votes polled in Thursday’s election. Mr Rajapaksa got 47.6 per cent, according to the election department.
Celebratory firecrackers were set off in the capital, Colombo, after Mr Rajapaksa conceded defeat to Mr Sirisena, who has vowed to root out corruption and bring constitutional reforms to weaken the power of the presidency. Sri Lanka’s stock market climbed to its highest in nearly four years.
“We expect a life without fear,” said Fathima Farhana (27), a Muslim woman in Colombo. “I voted for him because he said he would create equal opportunities for all.”
Mr Sirisena (63) is a soft-spoken man from the rice- growing hinterlands of the Indian Ocean island state. Like Mr Rajapaksa, Mr Sirisena is from the majority Sinhala Buddhist community, but he has reached out to ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims and has the support of small parties.
Mr Sirisena was sworn in at Colombo’s Independence Square, where British colonial rulers handed Sri Lanka its independence in 1948, alongside his new prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In an acceptance speech, he was vague on foreign policy, promising to “maintain a close relationship with all countries and organisations”.
However, his allies say he will rebalance the country’s foreign policy, which tilted heavily towards China in recent years as Mr Rajapaksa fell out with the West over human rights and allegations of war crimes committed at the end of a drawn-out conflict with Tamil separatists in 2009.
Mr Rajapaksa had cold-shouldered New Delhi in recent years but Mr Sirisena told an Indian newspaper earlier this week that “we will revert to the old, non-aligned policy”.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Beijing believed the new government would maintain a friendly policy towards China and support investment projects already agreed.
The results showed that Mr Rajapaksa remained popular among Sinhala Buddhists, who account for about 70 per cent of the country’s 21 million people, but Mr Sirisena earned his lead with the support of the ethnic Tamil-dominated former war zone in the north and Muslim-dominated areas.
Mr Rajapaksa won handsomely in the last election in 2010, surfing a wave of popularity months after the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels.
However critics say he had become increasingly authoritarian, with several members of his family holding powerful positions. Although the economy had blossomed since the end of the war, voters complained of the high cost of living.
Mr Sirisena will lead a motley coalition of ethnic, religious, Marxist and centre-right parties, which analysts say could hamper economic reform and encourage populist policies. He has pledged to abolish the executive presidency that gave Mr Rajapaksa unprecedented power and hold a fresh parliamentary election within 100 days.
Mr Sirisena has also promised a crackdown on corruption, which would include investigations into big infrastructure projects such as a $1.5 billion deal with China Communications Construction Co Ltd to build a port city. – (Reuters)