Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Election Surprise Opens Window of Change in Sri Lanka

Incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa expected an easy win, but instead he was ousted by a candidate pledging to govern as “a servant, not an authoritarian”.
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  • Maithripala Sirisena on January 9, a day after he was elected Sri Lankan president. (Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
    Maithripala Sirisena on January 9, a day after he was elected Sri Lankan president. (Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

There is cautious optimism in Sri Lanka that Maithripala Sirasena, who won a surprise victory in last week’s presidential election, could steer the country towards real change.

Sirasena took 51 per cent in the January 8 polls, defeating the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was expecting an easy win given his ten years in power and two-thirds majority in parliament. “I am president now, and I will be president on January 9,” Rajapaksa said more than once during campaigning.

So confident was Rajapaksa that he called the election two years ahead of schedule, but it was a miscalculation. First, the opposition was able to come together and back a common candidate; and second, some of his allies peeled away.

Commentators point to a number of reasons for Rajapaksa’s defeat, ranging from fears that he was becoming increasingly authoritarian and nepotistic to resentment at the high cost of living, corruption, encroachment on judicial independence, and attacks and curbs on journalists and civil society groups. His administration has also been accused of grabbing land in northern Sri Lanka after the Tamil Tiger insurgency was utterly crushed in 2009, and of turning a blind eye to attacks on the Muslim minority.

His successor Sirasena has pledged to launch even-handed investigations into alleged fraud and embezzlement committed in past years. He has also promised to reduce the overweening powers of the presidency and hold a parliamentary election in 100 days. In a reference to the outgoing administration’s close economic ties with China, the new president has said foreign policy will be revised in a bid to build relationships with a broader swathe of countries.

The early signals are positive. In an address to the nation, Sirisena pledged to serve the people “as a servant, not an authoritarian”. He has ordered the unblocking of websites and social networking platforms banned by his predecessor, and he has also signalled a more austere approach to spending by cutting ministerial posts from 100-plus to just 27 and holding only a modestly-funded swearing-in ceremony on January 10.

Sri Lankan civil society activists are hoping the incoming administration will live up to pledges made in its 100-programme to create mechanisms to ensure media freedom, accountability, independence of the judiciary, rule of law and democracy.

Before the full results were announced, Rajapaksa left his official residence and went back to his home in southern Sri Lanka, where he told supporters he had been defeated by “minorities” – a clear reference to Tamils and Muslims. Both Rajapaksa and Sirasena belong to the majority Sinhala population, who are Buddhists. The outgoing president’s less-than-gracious comments were criticised by civil society and media figures, who warned against inciting renewed inter-communal violence.

A spokesman for Sirasena has accused Rajapaksa of trying to muster army and police support for a coup once he realised the vote was going against him. No coup materialised, but the spokesman said the matter would be thoroughly investigated. Rajapaksa has rejected the allegations, using his Twitter account to say, “I deny in all possible terms reports of attempts to use the military to influence election results”, and insisting that he “accepted the outcome long before the final official results were released”.

The change in government and the public announcements made in recent days has made IWPR more confident that it will be able to work in Sri Lanka without restrictions or harassment. We launched our first project in the country in August 2014, amid steadily worsening conditions for civil society groups, which were forced to register with the defence ministry and submit work plans and finances for approval. Combined with hostile rhetoric directed against the human rights community and a series of attacks on media training activities carried out by other international groups, this forced us to take a low-profile approach to setting up our work in support of human rights advocacy.

Much of the outgoing government’s suspicion stemmed from fears that international organisations and their local partners would find evidence for the investigation which the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has set up to look into human rights abuses committed during the conflict between Sri Lankan security forces and the Tamil Tigers.

Azad Mohammed is IWPR’s project manager in Sri Lanka.