At a time when pollsters are beginning to restore their reputation through accurate calls on election results, such as in India, the fall of Sri Lanka's Mahinda Rajapaksa has taken most by surprise. Many sensed popular sentiment turning against his regime but few were sure that it would translate into an outright loss to the challenger Maithripala Sirisena. Such has been the hold on Rajapaksa's regime on Sri Lanka's state and society, that analysts speculated that in addition to a fraught, unruly and violent campaign there could either be electoral fraud, a military coup or the invalidation of the result by a pliant Supreme Court.
It did not come to that in the end, with Rajapaksa conceding defeat straightaway as results came through. Rajapaksa's defeat is a big moment for Sri Lanka and for democracies in general, as it demonstrates that strongmen - who capture and dominate the state apparatus, stack it with family members and cronies, accumulate personal assets, pursue a brand of militaristic nationalism that targets religious and ethnic minorities and the press - will ultimately exhaust their constituencies .
Rajapaksa built an autocracy on the back of a war in 2009 against a deeply reviled LTTE that saw widespread horrors perpetrated on Tamil civilians, prompting accusations of war crimes. Instead of using the victory for inclusive development and reconciliation, Rajapaksa set out building a personality cult whose details, with shades of North Korea, have been widely reported. Rajapaksa's pictures were everywhere: buses, billboards and all forms of media. School children greeted him at rallies would sing songs hailing him as "our father" and "father of the country". Rajapaksa printed his picture on currency notes, an honour usually accorded to revered monarchs or statesman like Mahatma Gandhi, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
More ominously, Rajapaksa's family monopolised state power, shutting out other actors in the political class. Two brothers became ministers of defence and economic development, a third the speaker of parliament. Several other relatives secured key positions; all told the family was said to control 70% of the government expenditure. They used all this power for personal aggrandisement and for imposing an unsavoury form of majoritarian politics that sections of Sinhala majority has perhaps eventually tired of. As Brian Senewiratne has written, militarisation proceeded at an unprecedented level in the north and east with one member of military for every five Tamil civilians while the armed forces grabbed land in Tamil areas. Rajapaksa's campaign also refreshed images of the war during the campaign to stoke anti-Tamil sentiment.
Eventually, it took an astute reading of the situation and clever bit of timing by the insider Sirisena to defect, rally the opposition and capture the anti-Rajapaksa mood.
Sirisena has made tall promises: to abolish the executive presidency in 100 days and restore the independence of the police, bureaucracy and judiciary. Whether he can or wishes to reverse the majoritarian tenor of Sri Lankan politics remains to be seen. He has notably said little about autonomy for Tamils.
For now, the story is about Rajapaksa's fall. As Senewiratne notes, this election is more than an attempt at a regime change. "It is an attempt to dismantle the Rajapaksa family autocracy and replace it with something that is more acceptable". It is also about fallible strongmen in democracy, whose image dominated the horizon and whose position was once considered unassailable. Political authority comes with a use-by-date unless handled well.