The intelligence could not have been more wrong. At the time of writing, Maithripala Sirisena, or COC (Common Opposition Candidate as he has come to be known) was heading for victory with nearly 60 per cent of the vote. Rajapaksa has conceded defeat and is making preparations to move out of Temple Trees, the official residence of the president after ruling for 10 years. Disbelieving Sri Lankans are still rubbing their eyes — even till a few days ago, this could not even have been countenanced. The official result is not yet out but fireworks are being set off in Colombo
“Whoever loses... will be presented with an opportunity to regroup in the parliamentary elections that could come within a few months of the presidential polls. And whoever wins will face the challenge of mending a polity in urgent need of being brought together,” wrote Alan Keenan, of the International Crisis Group, in a blog before the election, predicting Sri Lankan politics were almost certain to remain volatile in the months ahead.
First about Sri Lanka’s new President: Sirisena was very much part of the Rajapaksa regime through thick and thin — and sick and sin. Not only did he endorse the 2009 military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a senior minister, but also as general secretary of the party, he mounted a kind of celebration of victory later. He crossed the floor only in November 2014 when early elections were called and became a common candidate, edging aside war horses of the Opposition such as Ranil Wickremesinghe and towering leader of Sri Lanka, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga. A mishmash of political opinion, united with the sole objective of defeating Rajapaksa will now assume power in Sri Lanka. How their disparate interests will be accommodated by the new government remains to be seen.
Don’t expect any dramatic announcements of concessions to the Tamils. The Buddhist clergy has the new president firmly under its control. What will happen, however, is possible announcement of abolition of the executive presidency — although we have seen presidents in the past make this announcement from the opposition but go back on it when they come to power — like Chandrika Kumaratunga did.
The manifesto of the new coalition is confused. It commits Sirisena to increasing both public and private sector salaries to “reduce the oppressive burden of the cost of living” and reestablishing a “welfare state by developing an effective social safety net for marginalised groups and the poor and, in particular, for women and children, the elderly, pensioners and disabled persons.” At the same time, he promises an “open economy”. He has, however, announced that he will scrap many of the contracts between Sri Lanka and China in the infrastructure sector, including a new city proposed to be built on reclaimed land off Colombo that will amount to $1.5 bn and a casino project being promoted by an Australian company with an investment of $400 mn.
China is bound to be disappointed. Rajapaksa was their favourite leader, and Xi Jinping, during his visit in September 2014, had facilitated as many as 24 deals between Sri Lanka and China amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars. Obliquely, even during the campaign, Sirisena had referred to a kind of colonialism by China, indicating that though Sri Lanka had shrugged off the white man, dangers of imperialism lingered.
Many friends of India are part of the new government. But if moderation in Tamil Nadu is not observed, the new government could become a plaything in the hands of the Buddhist clergy. Sri Lanka is facing the complex challenge of managing Buddhist-Muslim relations as well. Riots a year ago between the two communities in the east testified to the fragile balance.
It can be safely expected that riding on the back of this victory, the new president will call for parliamentary elections, because the current Parliament is arrayed against him and his party.
Nepotism (the Opposition had come out with a pamphlet which noted that 75 positions of power and influence were filled by Rajapaksa’s family and friends) caused Rajapaksa’s defeat. Only bad things can happen to him now, ranging from possible charges of genocide in the international courts of justice to trials on charges of corruption at home. It will be time for Sri Lanka to settle down.
(Aditi Phadnis is Political Editor at Business Standard)