Across the great Eurasian plate these days, from Belarus to Beijing, one can find leaders dispensing with truly competitive politics. But traverse the Himalayas to South Asia and the climate is different: Democracy is on a winning streak.
Over the last two years, virtually the entire population of South Asia has had the opportunity to take part in elections, and the voters have shown a marked desire to send their leaders packing. There was plenty of evidence for this already, including Pakistan’s first democratic transfer of power and, last May, India’s epic rejection of the party that has dominated the country since independence.
Even so, last week’s vote in Sri Lanka was a jaw-dropper.
Sri Lanka stood out because it had been on a trajectory away from democracy, with an ever-stronger state dominated by an ever-smaller circle of leaders. After nearly a decade as president, Mahinda Rajapaksa could boast of ending a civil war that had dragged on for nearly 26 years and presiding over a steadily expanding economy. He had also imposed an atmosphere of fear quite atypical for Sri Lanka, forcing the news media and judiciary to heel. Six weeks ago, when he scheduled snap elections, he had no viable opponent.
The man who came out of nowhere to defeat him, a soft-spoken former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, promised voters something simple — a weaker presidency. On Sunday, in his first address as president, Mr. Sirisena said Sri Lanka would return to a parliamentary system.
“What our country needs,” he said, “is not a king, but a real human being.”
South Asia is one of the few parts of the world where countries are actively jumping into the democratic column. For many years, India and Sri Lanka were surrounded by a grab bag of monarchies, dictatorships and military governments. But then, in 2006, the king of Bhutan ordered an end to the country’s absolute monarchy. In 2008, Nepal followed suit, abolishing its monarchy. In 2009, the authorities in the Maldives allowed its first contested election in 30 years.
Eastern Europe had a period of democratic expansion like this, after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But the South Asian trend was not actively propagated by the West — or even by the local giant, India. Sumit Ganguly, a political scientist who has studied democracy in the region, said that India’s influence was a subtle, slow-burning one, as Nepalese, Bangladeshis and even Pakistanis said, “You know, after all, India has one thing going for it: They throw out their politicians with regularity.”
During a recent visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, Mr. Ganguly said he was struck by the current of fear he encountered among civil servants, academics and political activists, who confided in him about the recent “lurch toward authoritarianism.” He said Mr. Rajapaksa’s shocking defeat would take its place alongside that of Indira Gandhi, who was so certain of her popularity that she called early elections in 1977, two years into the crackdown known as “the emergency.”
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Both Mrs. Gandhi and Mr. Rajapaksa “were in for a rude shock,” said Mr. Ganguly, a professor at Indiana University. “They thought their population would engage in this kind of mindless adulation, but an odd coalition of people came together to express their discontent. And, given an opportunity, people will use the power of the ballot.”
Voter turnout for Thursday’s election was a record high for Sri Lanka, 81.5 percent, according to the Election Commission.
Over the weekend, the new government said it would immediately restore access to a number of websites that had been blocked, like those of the newspaper Colombo Telegraph and Tamilnet, and announced an end to surveillance in the country.
A clearer picture began to emerge of the events that led up to Mr. Rajapaksa’s decision to concede the election peacefully on Friday morning, before the vote count was finished. A lawmaker with Mr. Sirisena’s team told reporters that Mr. Rajapaksa had ordered the army to deploy throughout the country — a tactic some feared would be used to suppress turnout or even annul the vote on security grounds. But the army’s commander refused.
“He kept the troops in the barracks and helped a free and fair election,” said Rajitha Senaratne, a lawmaker.
A spokesman for Mr. Rajapaksa, Mohan Samaranayake, said that “there was no such attempt at all,” and that the former president had assessed early counts at 3:30 a.m. and instructed officials to facilitate a smooth transfer of power, according to the news agency Press Trust of India.
Brig. Ruwan Wanigasooriya, a military spokesman, said he was not aware of any such orders.
“I am not aware of such a coup attempt,” he said in comments to Agence France-Presse. “The army was not involved during any stage of the electoral process.”
Although many foreign analysts were taken aback by the election results, subtle shifts had been going on throughout the six-week campaign. Civil servants, for example, began to display flashes of independence. When one of Mr. Sirisena’s rally sites was destroyed in an arson attack in mid-December, a deputy minister and a number of his supporters were arrested. When the suspects were released, the commanding officer of the precinct resigned in protest, telling a local newspaper that he could not perform his duties “because of political pressure.”
Such events indicated that “maybe things were changing,” and rumblings from inside the system became more noticeable as the election grew closer, said Alan Keenan, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. A long list of academics, many of them employed at state universities, signed an open letter condemning “the concentration of both political and economic power in the hands of a few.”
“There were a lot of people who had previously been quiet,” Mr. Keenan said. “They had a window of opportunity where their voices made a difference, and where, if they didn’t use their voices, they feared they wouldn’t ever have another chance to use them. There was a window, and a lot of people jumped through.”
By the weekend, people were already talking about the Rajapaksa era as part of a receding past. Jayadeva Uyangoda, a Colombo political scientist, mused in The Hindu, an Indian newspaper, that “a third term for Mr. Rajapaksa would have robbed Sri Lanka’s democracy of whatever little vigor was left in it.”
The new president took the oath of office in a mobbed city square, his words inaudible in the clamor of a disorganized crowd, but no one seemed to mind.
“I wanted this change — we all really wanted it,” said Ruchi Wijisekara, who was in the square. “I feel that we have been freed from really oppressive rule. I think everyone here feels like that. This is why there is a carnival atmosphere.” (New York Times)