Mighty Rajapaksa stunned, Sirisena is new Lanka Prez | world | Hindustan Times
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Mighty Rajapaksa stunned, Sirisena is new Lanka Prez

Maithripala Sirisena was sworn in as the sixth president of Sri Lanka on Friday after a stunning poll result that was unthinkable just weeks ago, ending Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade-long authoritarian rule which critics say was marred by nepotism and corruption.

world Updated: Jan 10, 2015 01:21 IST

Maithripala Sirisena was sworn in as the sixth president of Sri Lanka on Friday after a stunning poll result that was unthinkable just weeks ago, ending Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade-long authoritarian rule which critics say was marred by nepotism and corruption.

Sirisena and his new prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe took the oath of office at Colombo’s Independence Square where thousands jostled with diplomats, Buddhist monks, dancers in Kandyan hats and musicians to click a photo of the new president.

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Supporters of Maithripala Sirisena celebrate his election win. (Reuters Photo)

He immediately made a political statement, with a senior Supreme Court judge administering the oath instead of the country’s chief justice, who was installed by Rajapaksa in a widely criticised move to further expand his authority.

He said Sri Lanka would mend its ties with the international community, in a clear reference to Rajapaksa’s falling out with the West over allegations of wartime rights abuses by the military.

“We will have a foreign policy that will mend our ties with the international community and all international organisations in order that we derive maximum benefit for our people,” he said.

“I will ensure I deliver the change I promised.”

Hailing from the rice-growing hinterland and the son of a World War II veteran, the 63-year-old farmer-turned-politician doesn’t speak English, doesn’t hobnob with Colombo’s elite but proved more than a match for Rajapaksa.

As results rolled in from Thursday’s election, Rajapaksa conceded defeat to his former health minister who defected in November and derailed what the strongman thought would be an easy win after he confidently called snap polls two years ahead of schedule.

The ousted president vacated his official residence, Temple Trees on Galle Road, in a symbolic gesture of defeat even before the final results were out.

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Maithripala Sirisena waves to supporters before filing his nomination papers for the elections in Colombo. (AP Photo)

Election officials said 51.28% of votes went in favour of Sirisena while Rajapaksa got 47.58%.

Sirisena promised he wouldn’t run again for president and not go after political foes. He also vowed to abolish the executive presidency that gave Rajapaksa unprecedented power and hold a fresh parliamentary election within 100 days.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated the new leader and called for “genuine reconciliation” in the island nation — a rallying point for ethnic Tamils who voted heavily in favour of the rainbow coalition under Sirisena.

Many Tamils voted for Sirisena not because they supported him but because they despised Rajapaksa.

He not only crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 but also ignored Tamil demands to heal wounds of the fighting and years of ethnic divisions with the Sinhalese majority, who were grumbling about his family’s growing power.

The results could signal a period of better relations between India and Sri Lanka which had tilted heavily towards China in recent years under Rajapaksa.

New Delhi watched the poll from a distance, given the ruling BJP’s closeness with Rajapaksa who called India a relative and China a friend — best friend at times.

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Supporters of Maithripala Sirisena. (AP Photo)

“This is the first time a Lankan government is elected to power which has a decisive influence of the West. That in terms of geopolitics is not great news for India. Rajapaksa was in essence a nationalist. He warmed up to China when there were instances of India not responding to his demands. But this region never had the dictates of the West since India’s independence,” said MK Bhadrakumar, a former career diplomat.

India needs Sri Lanka to counterweight the growing Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean realm.

The island nation remains vital commercially, too, sitting next to shipping lanes that feed 80% of China’s and 65% of India’s oil needs.

Inputs from agencies