In a stunning verdict that has raised hopes of reconciliation in the ethnically divided island nation, Sri Lankan voters on Friday ousted President Mahinda Rajapaksa from power, ending a ten-year rule that was marked by allegations of family rule, corruption, and authoritarianism and chose his one-time Minister Maithripala Sirisena in his place.
Hours after the results were declared, 63-year-old Sirisena, who led a revolt and defected to the Opposition camp on the eve of announcement of the elections, was sworn-in as President. Sworn-in along with him was his new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who till now was the Leader of Opposition. Both of them took the oath of office at a ceremony in Independence Square.
India welcomed completion of a peaceful and democratic poll process in Sri Lanka and hoped that the new Government will develop the country on the “foundation of genuine and effective reconciliation” creating harmony between all sections there. India, has been pushing Sri Lanka to implement the 13th Amendment in “letter and spirit” to meet aspirations of the ethnic Tamils there. The 13th Amendment is part of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, whereby Colombo agreed to devolve some authority to provinces.
After the leadership change, the initial impression given by the experts in New Delhi is that the change may be good for India given the early responses of Sirisena, who has not been very enthusiastic over China’s increasing influence over the island nation. However, on ethnic Tamils issue, the officials feel that there will not be much change in the policy of Lankan Government as Sirisena has already 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.
President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi sent their congratulatory messages to Sirisena. A message from the External Affairs Ministry said: “Sri Lanka has a tradition of democratic change to peaceful elections. India wishes them success in building a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka on foundations of genuine and effective reconciliation which creates a climate of harmony between all sections of society.”
Voters showed the door to 69-year-old Rajapaksa, who was suave but ruthless when it came to decimating the dreaded LTTE that had earned him the title of ‘King’ among the majority Sinhalese and unpopularity with the minority Tamils. There were 19 candidates in the fray. But the main fight was between two-term president Rajapaksa and Sirisena in the closely-fought election that was advanced by two years by Rajapaksa who had amended the Constitution for seeking an unprecedented third term.
Health Minister under Rajapaksa and General Secretary of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party till he defected, Sirisena got 6,217,162 or 51.2 per cent of the votes against Rajapaksa’s 5,768,090 or 47.6 per cent. Much before the declaration, Rajapaksa, who was accused of practising politics of dynasty, conceded defeat early in the morning and left the presidential house ‘Temple Trees’. After his victory, Sirisena thanked Rajapaksa for ensuring 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.
Sirisena was backed by the main Opposition United National Party, the Buddhist nationalist 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. Notwithstanding the support he may have got, the President-elect may not make a radical departure from the policies of the ousted President.
In the run up to the election, Sirisena had pledged to abolish the executive presidency within 100 days of being elected, repeal the controversial 18th Amendment under which a President can seek re-election any number of times, re-instate the 17th Amendment. 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, adding he would not allow the country to be divided or allow the LTTE to regroup. 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 Sirisena.
Soon after his victory, Sri Lanka’s main Tamil party, TNA reminded Sirisena the need to “urgently” address the minority community’s concerns. A statement from the TNA leader Rajavayothi Sampanthan said: “New President Sirisena has to address urgently many grave issues the country faces, including an honorable resolution of the national question so as to enable the minority Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka to be true beneficiaries of democracy.”
The TNA delivered Sirisena 74 and 81 per cent of the vote respectively in the former war zones of the North and East. India had been keenly watching the contest in its neighbourhood and immediately reached out to Sirisena with Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulating him on his electoral victory.
Modi first called up Sirisena and then wrote a letter to him, hailing his win and expressing India’s continued solidarity to Sri Lanka’s peace and development. “I spoke to Shri Maithripala Sirisena and congratulated him. I congratulate the people of Sri Lanka on the peaceful and democratic poll process. As a close friend and neighbour, reaffirmed India’s continued solidarity and support for Sri Lanka’s peace, development and prosperity,” he tweeted.
In the letter, Modi wrote, “Your historic victory is a tribute to your vision for Sri Lanka and your capacity to connect with people’s yearning for change.” The Prime Minister also invited Sirisena to visit India, saying he looks forward to receive him in India. In his message to his counterpart, Mukherjee said: “India and Sri Lanka as neighbours with civilisational ties sharing a common history, cultural heritage, interests and values, have long enjoyed a tradition of close friendship and cooperation.”
“Sirisena’s win in Sri Lanka will definitely help in strengthening the bilateral ties and improving the security environment in the region,” Rajnath Singh said. Congress president Sonia Gandhi in a message extended her good wishes to Sirisena for his future endeavors towards their welfare and unity. Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu urged the new Lankan Government to implement the 13th Amendment on meaningful devolution of powers in “letter and spirit” and said the aspirations of the ethnic Tamils there must be met.
Hailing the defeat of Sri Lankan leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, political parties in Tamil Nadu on Friday upped the ante for a probe into his role in the alleged war crimes against minority Tamils in 2009. DMK president M Karunanidhi said that his party’s demand for an international probe into alleged war crimes stays.
The harshest critic of Rajapaksa, MDMK founder Vaiko, termed the former’s defeat as “justice by Tamils.” He urged Sirisena to allow entry of UN Human Rights Council investigators into his country to hold probe regarding alleged war crimes. PMK founder S Ramadoss, TMC(M) chief GK Vasan and Dravidar Kazhagam leader K Veeramani also hailed Rajapaksa’s defeat. (Daily Pioneer)