Beyond the colourful celebrations, the frenzy of firecrackers and the long line of supporters outside the residence of Maithripala Sirisena on Friday, the story of Sri Lanka’s seventh presidential elections was told by a set of numbers.
Sirisena had scripted a sensational win with 6,217,162 votes overall to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 5,768,090. In the Sinhalese-dominated southern provinces and elsewhere, it was Rajapaksa who led with 5,444,490 votes to Sirisena’s 5,239,051. But what really made the difference was this: in the northern and eastern provinces, where the minorities have a significant presence, Rajapaksa received only 323,600 votes to Sirisena’s 978,111.
In an nutshell, 69-year-old Rajapaksa, the strongman who vanquished the LTTE in 2009 and was once considered invincible across 10 years and two elections, had lost the support of his minorities —- and with it the country.
The attacks on Muslims by Buddhist hardliners over the last year, the dissatisfaction and sense of fear among the Tamil population, and the disillusionment among the Sinhalese had finally taken its toll. And the verdict was officially sealed when the country’s Commissioner of Elections Mahinda Deshapriya announced: “I declare that Maithripala Sirisena has been duly elected as the President of Sri Lanka.”
Supreme Court Justice K Sripavan later administered the oath of office to Sirisena, along with the new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The final twist was this large photograph that continued to greet visitors at 63-year-old Sirisena’s residence on Vijayarama Road in Colombo even after the results were confirmed: it showed Sirisena sharing a laugh with Rajapaksa when they were in government together.
“I will ensure I deliver the change I promised. I will strengthen Sri Lanka’s foreign relations to maintain friendly relations with all nations,” Sirisena said later, adding that he would not seek a second term.
“We will have a foreign policy that will mend ties with the international community and all international organisations in order that we derive maximum benefit for our people,” he said.
According to sources, Sirisena is likely to finalise his Cabinet on Saturday itself to start working on his 100-day plan for reforms.
A senior army official, who was part of the security cover at Sirisena’s residence, termed the stunning win as “a revolution against a dictator”. “This should be a lesson for all South Asian countries,” he said.
“This verdict has opened up a free space through which the democratic values and reforms can be pushed in. People really wanted a change and wished to end the authoritarian rule of Rajapaksa,” said Kushal Perera, a political analyst and writer.
In fact, Rajapaksa realised that he had lost as early as 5 am. He then spoke to his army, police and intelligence chiefs over phone before deciding to move out of his official Temple Tree residence, said a senior army official.
Rajapaksa then posted this tweet: “I value and respect our democratic process and the people’s verdict, and look forward to the peaceful transition of power -MR” Sirisena, who was once Rajapaksa’s health minister before defecting in November to spearhead an opposition coalition, appeared to echo that sentiment.
“Let’s move towards a compassionate, maithree era,” he posted on his Facebook page after arriving in Colombo from Polonoruwa, his home about 230 km away. According to an aide, Sirisena was referring to the concept of Maitreya, the prophesied bodhisatwa in Buddhist literature.
And so it was that the might of the official machinery, which Rajapaksa had unleashed to secure an unprecedented third term, failed against a motley group of mostly young lawyers, businessmen, university professors and IT professionals who were steering Sirisena’s campaign.
Karu Paranawithana, Sirisena’s private secretary, told The Indian Express, “The new government will take speedy measures to fulfill the 100 days plan promised during the election. One of the top agendas include the restoration of the democratic system and revocation of constitutional amendments made by Rajapaksa degrading the standards of judiciary, police and army, and the election commission.”
According to another close aide of Sirisena, “The appointment of Wickremesinghe as the new prime minister will be a great opening for the new government in terms of settling long-pending political and ethnic problems. We received the support of the Tamils and other minority parties without any commitments. But the better record of Wickremesinghe in political settlements will definitely help in finding solutions to issues that matter for them.”
U A Palliya Guru, an advertising professional who headed the challenger’s campaign across online, print, TV and radio, said he had “corrected his mistakes” by working for Sirisena as a volunteer this time “without any perks but from a small room on the terrace of Sirisena’s official residence.”
In 2005 and 2010, Guru was part of Rajapaksa’s campaign team.