In a result that was unthinkable just weeks ago, former Cabinet minister Maithripala Sirisena won Sri Lanka's presidential election, humbling his onetime ally and longtime president who paid the price for blatantly amassing power while failing to address the country's economic troubles.
In a result that was unthinkable just weeks ago, former Cabinet minister Maithripala Sirisena won Sri Lanka’s presidential election, humbling his onetime ally and longtime president who paid the price for blatantly amassing power while failing to address the country’s economic troubles.
Sirisena, who defected from the ruling party in a surprise move in November, capitalized on outgoing President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s unpopularity among this island’s ethnic and religious minorities, as well as grumbling among the Sinhalese majority about his growing power.
Sirisena (si-ri-SAY’-na) received 51.2 percent of the votes in Thursday’s election and Rajapaksa got 47.5 percent, said Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya. Rajapaksa had conceded defeat and vacated his official residence early Friday morning, hours before the official announcement.
Sirisena, 63 and a longtime politician, called on his supporters to remain peaceful in the wake of victory, telling them at a gathering at the Election Commission that they shouldn’t “even hurt anybody’s feelings.”
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“The honor of this victory is in your peaceful conduct,” he said, thanking Rajapaksa for ensuring the transition had so far gone smoothly.
Sirisena was expected to be sworn in later Friday.
Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who met Rajapaksa early Friday, said the outgoing president saw his defeat in early election results and agreed to hand over power. He said Rajapaksa deserved credit for ending the civil war but the people had called for a change.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meanwhile issued a statement praising the peaceful transfer of power.
“I commend President Rajapaksa for accepting the results of the election in the proud tradition of peaceful and orderly transfers of power in Sri Lanka. His words tonight about accepting the verdict of the people and moving forward are important.”
Pope Francis was scheduled to arrive in the country on Tuesday.
While Rajapaksa’s campaign centered around his victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009 and his work rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, Sirisena’s focused on reining in the president’s expanding powers. He also accused Rajapaksa of corruption, a charge the president denied.
Rajapaksa had built up immense power after defeating the Tamil Tigers, using his huge popularity with Sinhalese majority who hailed him as a king. He used his parliamentary majority to scrap a constitutional two-term limit for the president and gave himself the power to appoint many top officials. When the chief justice objected to his moves, he orchestrated her impeachment.
He had also created a cult image for himself and installed numerous relatives in top government positions, sidelining the party’s old guard, which helped give rise to the revolt that brought Sirisena to power.
One of Rajapaksa’s brothers is a Cabinet minister, another is the speaker of Parliament and a third is the defense secretary. One of his son’s is a member of Parliament and a nephew is a provincial chief minister. The diplomatic service was full of his relatives and friends.
Jagath Dissanayake, a 40-year-old businessman, said the people had collectively voted against corruption.
“We can’t give a vote of gratitude to him every day,” he said referring to Rajapaksa’s war victory.
Wimal Perera, 44, said the results reflected the people’s economic hardships. While the economy has grown in recent years on the back of enormous construction projects, many built with Chinese investment money, the country still has a large underclass, many of whom are increasingly frustrated at being left out.
Rajapaksa, who was elected in 2005, had been widely expected to easily win his third term in office until Sirisena suddenly split away in November, gathering the support of other defecting lawmakers and many of the country’s ethnic minorities, making the election a fierce political battle.
Rajapaksa was still thought to be tough to beat because he controlled the state media, has immense financial resources and popularity among the Sinhala majority. But polling was notably strong in Tamil-dominated areas, where voting had been poor in previous elections.
Many Tamils were believed to have voted heavily for Sirisena — not so much because they supported him but because they despised Rajapaksa so much. He not only crushed the Tamil Tiger rebellion but also largely ignored Tamil demands to heal the wounds of the fighting and years of ethnic divisions.
Muslims, the second-largest ethnic minority, also appeared to have voted against Rajapaksa, who was accused of backing ultranationalist Buddhist groups and turning a blind eye on anti-Muslim violence last June.
And for the country’s Sinhalese, which make up about three-quarters of the population, Sirisena’s entry into the race gave them another credible option if they were fed up with Rajapaksa or wary of his growing clout.
Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.