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Sri Lankans vote for change

Gabriel DomínguezJanuary 9, 2015

Vowing to fight graft and limit the presidency's powers, opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena has won Sri Lanka's bitterly fought presidential poll. Experts believe the key votes came from the country's minorities.

Sri Lanka Präsidentschaftswahlen Maithripala Sirisena 9.1.2015
Image: picture-alliance/AP/Eranga Jayawardena

After almost a decade in power, outgoing Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded defeat to his onetime political ally Maithripala Sirisena in a closely contested election.

While Rajapaksa won 47.62 percent of the vote, Sirisena was elected president of the South Asian nation with 51.28 percent of the vote, said Sri Lanka's Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya on Friday, January 9. About 75 percent of the country's 15 million registered voters cast their ballots. Sirisena and his new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe both took the oath of office in Colombo's Independence Square.

Rajapaksa's defeat came as a surprise to many in the island nation of 21 million. Only two months ago, and nearly two years ahead of schedule, the 69-year-old had called early elections in an attempt to seek a historic third term amid signs of fading popularity.

But any hope for an easy victory soon vanished when, in a surprise move, Sirisena defected from the ruling party last November.

Formidable opposition

The candidacy of Sirisena, who until recently was also the General Secretary of Rajapaksa's own Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), split the ruling party as he was joined by a number of other senior SLFP members who assembled a formidable opposition coalition.

Regionalwahlen Sri Lanka 2013
Voter turnout in the Tamil-speaking areas was higher than in previous electionsImage: Reuters

Backed by the main opposition United National Party (UNP), the 63-year-old farmer-turned-politician won many supporters among disaffected Sri Lankans and vowed to limit the president's executive powers, root out corruption, and strengthen parliament and the judiciary.

Rajapaksa, however, was still thought to be a formidable adversary as he controlled the state media, has immense financial resources and popularity among the Sinhalase majority, many of whom credit him with both defeating ethnic Tamil separatists in 2009 and the subsequent improvement of the economy.

But although Rajapaksa managed to retain the support of the rural Sinhalese masses in this election, this wasn't enough to change the general mood in the country.

Widespread discontent

Soon after his second-term victory in 2009, Rajapaksa removed the presidency's two-term limit, triggering widespread criticism. The 69-year-old also stood accused of undermining the independence of the judiciary as well as of corruption and nepotism.

In fact, during his decade in power, Rajapaksa installed numerous relatives in top government positions: one of his brothers is a Cabinet minister, another is the speaker of Parliament and a third is the defense secretary. His older son is a member of Parliament and a nephew is a provincial chief minister.

According to Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council (NPC) of Sri Lanka, the widespread discontent with the "excesses" of Rajapaksa's administration was key to Sirisena's win. Perera argues that the use of Sinhalese nationalism to an excessive degree alienated the ethnic and religious minorities. In addition, "the rampant corruption also raised concerns among the Sinhalese intelligentsia," he told DW.

Rajapaksa also faced sharp criticism from Western countries over his refusal to allow an international investigation into alleged war crimes and his apparent unwillingness to promote reconciliation with the country's Tamil minority following the civil war.

A host of challenges

For more than 30 years, Sri Lankan armed forces fought against militant separatists seeking to create an independent state for the Tamil-speaking minority in the north and the east of the island nation.

Only in May 2009 did the central government in Colombo, led by the ethnic Sinhalese majority, manage to recapture the last area controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), putting an end to a civil war that had cost the lives of more than 100,000 people, according to United Nations estimates.

There are a number of challenges awaiting the new president in the Tamil-dominated north alone, ranging from the militarization of the region, and an absence of land rights and job opportunities, to demands for devolution of powers to the province and meaningful steps for reconciliation. Resentment against Rajapaksa ran high in the Tamil community, which accounts for around 12 percent of the country's population.

"Rajapaksa's government did not concede any substantial political rights to the Tamils after the war, nor addressed their urgent need to rebuild their lives in their own land or to know what happened to their missing loved ones during the war. Instead, the government continued to rule the Tamil areas through the military," said Perera.

A policy shift?

This explains why the voter turnout was notably strong in the heavily militarized former war zones of the north and east, where voting had been poor in previous elections. Many Tamils are believed to have voted heavily for Sirisena - not so much because they supported him but because they were against Rajapaksa. The main Tamil party, the TNA, had allied itself with Sirisena.

But the Muslim vote also seems to have played a key role in this election. The second-largest ethnic minority on the island appears to have voted against Rajapaksa as they had become subject to attacks by extremist Buddhists allegedly backed by sections of the government.

Sri Lanka Bürgerkrieg
Only in May 2009 did the central government in Colombo manage to put an end to the civil warImage: AP

But will Sirisena's victory lead to a change of policy towards minorities? Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka expert at the International Crisis Group, says that many of the issues most important to Tamils were not on the political agenda of either Rajapaksa or the combined opposition.

Human rights

Analyst Perera agrees: "As a politician Sirisena does not have an articulated policy on the Tamil issue." However, the NPC director believes that if the Sirisena camp continues to act as it did during election, the Tamil policy will be collectively determined.

"The TNA is likely to be part of the national government that Sirisena has pledged to set up. His victory presents an opening for discussion among political parties of different ideological orientations. Now that most of them on the same side, this would be the best opportunity to work out a mutually acceptable solution," said Perera.

This view is echoed by David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director. "The new government now has an opportunity to usher in a new era of genuine respect for human rights - it is one that must not be missed."

There are key human rights issues the new administration must make a priority, Griffiths added. These include the repeal of the 18th constitutional amendment, which undermines judicial independence and other human rights safeguards by placing key state institutions into the hands of the president, and the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act, which grants security forces sweeping powers to violate human rights, he said.

Moreover, there is the task of addressing Muslim concerns which will require ending the impunity with which Buddhist militant groups have attacked and harassed the minorty group.

Tough road ahead

But finding a widely-endorsed solution to ethnic conflict is easier said than done, as the differences between the parties are great. Moreover, Sirisena will have to find a way to address the international demand for accountability on the topic of war crimes in a manner that does not become internally divisive, but which reconciles the people of the country.

Furthermore, the new president will face other daunting political challenges such as restoring the institutions of governance that were undermined during the Rajapaksa rule. "The system of checks and balances has been eroded. The judiciary and public service became politicized. This has got to be changed," said Perera.

Sri Lanka - Chinas Präsident Xi Jinping
Rajapaksa's government turned mainly to China for financial supportImage: Getty Images/S.Kodikara

More difficult perhaps will be finding the two-thirds majority in parliament needed for constitutional reforms. Should he fail in this attempt, his coalition's reform agenda would face serious difficulties.

And then there is the economy. The country has witnessed rapid growth since the end of the civil war, expanding at an annual average rate of more than seven percent, with the previous government turning mainly to China as a key source of financial support.

"The key challenge will be to determine the course of Sri Lanka's economic development. Currently it is state-driven and dependent on Chinese assistance," said Perera.