Mahinda Rajapaksa has been such a ubiquitous, dominant figure in Sri Lankan politics that it is scarcely believable that he was trounced in presidential elections by Maithripala Sirisena, a friend and member of Mr Rajapaksa’s Cabinet who defected to the opposition a day after the two shared a dinner of hoppers. But lost he has, drawing to a close an era marked by a decisive victory over the LTTE that subsequently prompted sustained international scrutiny over alleged war crimes. Mr Rajapaksa was the master of all he surveyed when the war ended in 2009, and instead of using the victory for more high-minded purposes, he set out to treat the Tamil minority in the north and east harshly, denying them political rights and autonomy. That would have worked to prolong his reign in power had he not tried to appropriate the entire Sinhala political space by farming out key positions to family members and cronies. Displaying overweening ambition, Mr Rajapaksa muzzled the press, intimidated opposition figures and weakened key institutions like the judiciary. Clearly he had overplayed his hand.
The victorious Mr Sirisena comes in with a lot of expectations. He has promised to end the executive presidency, restore the power of parliament and the independence of institutions. He has, however, been non-committal on accountability for war-time rights violations, post-war reconciliation, and devolving power to Tamil and Muslim areas. That Mr Sirisena cut his political teeth with Sinhala nationalists, backed the 2009 war and is close to hardline Buddhist monks does not hold out much hope on issues like demilitarisation in Tamil areas. The new President will, in any case, have his hands full tackling economic challenges and navigating ties with the Buddhist clergy and formidable players who backed him like Ranil Wickremasinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga, apart from Mr Rajapaksa who retains sizeable support.
Mr Sirisena’s election changes the dynamics in South Asia though. India will privately welcome Mr Sirisena’s election, especially since Mr Rajapaksa ignored New Delhi’s lobbying on autonomy for Tamils and developed close ties with Beijing — offering it crucial infrastructure projects and allowing its nuclear submarines to dock at Colombo. Mr Sirisena has said he will review some of the Chinese investments and his manifesto says that the “land that the imperialists took over by means of military strength is now being obtained by foreigners...” These are grand claims for sure, but Sri Lanka will be happier that the lively, non-stifling dance of democracy can begin yet again.