Colombo | Sri Lankan voters today delivered a stunning defeat to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the hero of the military war over the LTTE, opting for his former colleague Maithripala Sirisena to end a 10-year rule that was marked by allegations of family rule, corruption and authoritarianism capped by internal revolt.
Health Minister under Rajapaksa and General Secretary of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party till he defected on the eve of announcement of elections, 63-year-old Sirisena got 6,217,162 or 51.2 per cent of the votes against Rajapaksa’s 5,768,090 or 47.6 per cent.
I declare that Maithripala Sirisena has been duly elected as the President of Sri Lanka, announced Commissioner of Elections Mahinda Deshapriya bringing the curtains down on the closely fought elections that was advanced by two years by Rajapaksa who had amended the constitution for seeking an unprecedented third term.
Much before the declaration, Rajapaksa, 69, who was accused of practising politics of dynasty, conceded defeat early in the morning and left the presidential house ‘Temple Trees’. Sirisena after winning the election thanked Rajapaksa for allowing a fair poll. The minority Tamils and Muslims appeared to have voted heavily against Rajapaksa, who had earned the wrath of Tamils over the alleged human rights violations during the final phase of war against the LTTE in 2009 and for not implementing the promised constitutional amendments to devolve power to them.
Rajapaksa has promised smooth transition of power, Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said adding they have to respect him for his action in finishing the war on LTTE. Sirisena, who defected to the opposition camp after a dinner with the President the previous night, was backed by the main opposition United National Party (UNP), the Buddhist nationalist JHU or the Heritage Party and a host of other Tamil and Muslim minority parties.
In all, 26 ruling coalition MPs deserted Rajapaksa during the run up to the poll that delivered a verdict that was considered impossible till a few weeks ago. Rajapaksa had created a cult image around himself and placed numerous relatives in top positions, sidelining the party’s old guard, which helped give rise to the dissent.
Sirisena, a staunch Buddhist like his defeated rival, has a rural background, does not speak English and is always seen in the Lankan national dress in public. Notwithstanding the support he may have got, the President-elect may not make a radical departure from the policies of the ousted President.
During campaigning in Tamil areas, Sirisena made it clear that he would not go soft on Tamil hardliners or withdraw the army from the north in exchange for their support in presidential election. I have no intention of withdrawing the army from the north. As president, national security will be my responsibility, Sirisena had said.
He said he would not allow the country to be divided or allow the LTTE to regroup in Sri Lanka. We have not signed any agreement with the Tamil National Alliance or Sri Lanka Muslim Congress to devolve powers or divide the country, he added. About 75 per cent of the 15.04 million electorate voted in yesterday’s election.
Sirisena took strong lead from the ethnic Tamil-dominated and Muslims-dominated areas. The Tamils, who account for 13 per cent, angered by Rajapaksa’s successful military campaign that crushed the LTTE voted for the opposition unity candidate Sirisena. Sirisena has no background of hobnobbing with the Colombo elite and socialites.
No old boy of a leading Colombo school, he was more than a match for Rajapaksa’s rural appeal. There were 19 candidates in the fray. But the main fight was between two-term president Rajapaksa and Sirisena. Rajapaksa, who has been accused of running a family rule and turning the country into an authoritarian regime, will be regretting for calling the snap poll two years ahead of schedule.