Sri Lanka's great change: President out, challenger in

  • Padma Rao Sundarji, Hindustan Times, Colombo
  • Updated: Jan 09, 2015 17:56 IST

It was the longest night Sri Lanka has seen in recent years. Millions of Sri Lankans stayed glued to computers and television screens from late evening to get--first postal votes and then district-wise--the results of Thursday's presidential election.

Early Friday, outside a large house in Colombo's Wijerama Mawatha, where the oppositional presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena has his office and residence, there was an eruption of fireworks accompanied by deafening sound of trumpets.

The 63-year-old veteran politician's bluff of quitting his job as health minister and 'crossing over' to the opposition just two months ago had worked. Incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa

conceded defeat

, promised a smooth transition and moved out of the president's official residence, Temple Trees on Galle Road.

"We voted for change and we got it," Dhammika, a young hotel employee said, jubilantly waving a clutch of Sri Lankan flags in the air. She had left her job early and gone along with her brother to catch a glimpse of the candidate who had promised it:

Maithripala Sirisena

, of a middle-class farming family from Polunnaruwa.

Clearly, democracy has prevailed. The one-day election was one of the smoothest and most peaceful in the country that saw 30 years of bloodshed and unrest during the civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"I don't know why this happened, Rajapaksa was the best man for this country," said a distraught Padma, an upcountry Tamil who works as a domestic help in Colombo, as she walked slowly away from the back lane of Temple Trees, where another clutch of supporters of the outgoing president had gathered. "After all he did for us"…

Indeed, there is hardly a Sri Lankan--even among those who voted for Sirisena - who will not concede that Rajapaksa's greatest achievement, one that evaded all his predecessors, was to put an end to the long civil war and decimate the LTTE.

Rajapaksa's government also developed the war-savaged Northern and Eastern Provinces with a speed and efficiency few others countries including India can match.

Wide highways were built, landmines cleared at top speed, and a railway connection between Colombo and the northern port of Kankesanthurai in Jaffna re-established for the first time in decades and all in merely four years since the end of war.


why was Rajapaksa voted out

? Primarily, for the usual fatal flaw that afflicts many powerful political families in South Asia: a near usurpation of all powers within the office of president and for establishing a network of family members in many important offices--many of them face allegations of massive corruption and megalomania.

And why was Sirisena voted in? Because he not only promised to "clean up" the system, but also to abolish executive presidency by returning powers to the office of the prime minister and parliament.

But Sirisena's task will be an uphill one. The multi-party 'grand coalition' that backs him brings together Sri Lanka's two biggest parties: Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its hitherto biggest rival, the United National Party (UNP) led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, a seasoned politician, erstwhile prime minister and one who will once again be named to that position soon.

Before Sirisena stunned Rajapaksa by deciding to challenge him in the election, he was one of the top leaders of the SLFP.

Interestingly, the coalition also includes Tamil and Sinhalese nationalists, and Muslim parties and the Buddhist clergy.

Such an all-encompassing rainbow coalition ought to be any country's dream team.

But Sri Lanka is not any country. There are some pressing issues to be solved: greater devolution to the formerly embattled Tamil provinces, for one. A fine balance between relations with India and China in the geopolitically sensitive and potentially volatile Indian Ocean region, another.

How will those in the coalition who demand maximum autonomy for Tamils, see eye to eye with the Sinhalese?

For now and going by the euphoria on the streets of Colombo, it seems enough for Sri Lanka to enjoy the hope that any new beginning brings.

Sirisena will be sworn in later tonight. As for the many challenges that await him and his new team: tomorrow is another day.

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A leader falls: Why Sri Lanka ousted Mahinda Rajapaksa
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