Sri Lanka: President Rajapaksa concedes defeat in bitterly-fought election

As many as 15 million Lankans will go to polling booths Thursday to tick either symbol and therewith choose a president – either incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa (in pic) or his erstwhile health minister Maithripala Sirisena.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded defeat to his opposition challenger on Friday after a bitterly-fought presidential election, ending a decade of rule that critics say had become increasingly authoritarian and marred by nepotism and corruption.

Rajapaksa vacated Temple Trees, his official residence early on Friday, following a meeting with Opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe, assuring him of smooth transition.

With final result yet to be declared, Mithripala Sirisena is expected to be declared winner by around 4,00,000 votes.

“We don’t have any good news. It is all bad news,” said a senior government official and close ally of Rajapaksa as the results came in from Thursday’s election on this Indian Ocean island of 21 million people.

“I think people need a change and this is democracy.”

Celebratory firecrackers could be heard exploding in the capital, Colombo, after the president’s office said Rajapaksa had met Wickramasinghe to accept the victory of his challenger, Sirisena. There was no sign of protests or a major mobilisation of security forces.

Sirisena, a former government minister who deserted the president and changed sides to become the opposition’s candidate in November, has vowed to root out corruption and bring constitutional reforms to weaken the power of the presidency.

Seeking an unprecedented third term, 69-year-old Rajapaksa called the election two years early, confident that – despite his waning popularity – the fractured opposition would fail to find a credible candidate.

But he did not anticipate the emergence of Sirisena, who dined with him one evening and turned on him the next day. A broad coalition of parties rallied behind Sirisena. Both Rajapaksa and Sirisena are Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa has been grappling with deep divisions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority groups. The biggest Tamil political grouping has endorsed Sirisena, underscoring community’s anger over the continuing heavy presence of the army in the north and a lack of local political autonomy.

The department of elections said that of 3.26 million votes counted so far, Sirisena had taken 51.3% and Rajapaksa was trailing on 46.9%. Other candidates accounted for the rest of the votes cast by an electorate of around 15 million.

Presidential coordinator Wijayananda Herath said Rajapaksa met Wickremesinghe, who will be prime minister under the new president, to concede defeat and asked him to “facilitate a smooth transition”.

“The president met with former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe this morning. The president concedes defeat and will ensure a smooth transition of power bowing to the wishes of the people,” Herath told AFP.

Sirisena is expected to be sworn in later on Friday.

Rajapaksa won handsomely in the last election in 2010, surfing a wave of popularity months after the defeat of ethnic Tamil separatists who had waged a crippling war against the state for decades.

But critics say he had become increasingly authoritarian since becoming president, with several members of his family holding key positions of power.

The early results showed Rajapaksa remained popular among the country’s Sinhala Buddhists, who account for around 70% of the population, but Sirisena took his lead from the ethnic Tamil-dominated former war zone in the north of the country and Muslims-dominated areas.

Sirisena is set to lead a potentially fractious coalition of ethnic, religious, Marxist and centre-right parties.

He has pledged to abolish the executive presidency that gave Rajapaksa unprecedented power and hold a fresh parliamentary election within 100 days.

He has also promised a crackdown on corruption, which would include investigations into big infrastructure projects such as a $1.5 billion deal with China Communications Construction Co Ltd to build a port city.

India has special interest in the poll because Rajapaksa had gravitated towards Beijing as a strategic and investment partner — attracting big Chinese funding.

The world was watching the election in case violence should erupt after the results are announced especially since Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in the country on Tuesday.

(PTI inputs)

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