In an election that was as unusual as it was historic, Sri Lanka on Thursday elected and transferred power to its sixth president with a speed, efficacy and civility not seen in elections for decades. A lion’s share of credit goes to the indomitable Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya and Police Chief N. K. Ilangakoon for [...]


The election that Mahinda (Deshapriya) won


In an election that was as unusual as it was historic, Sri Lanka on Thursday elected and transferred power to its sixth president with a speed, efficacy and civility not seen in elections for decades. A lion’s share of credit goes to the indomitable Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya and Police Chief N. K. Ilangakoon for surpassing expectations in carrying out their duties, ensuring a poll that was peaceful, free and fair in comparison with past experience. With the quick release of results, the final outcome was known to the public before noon.

The smoothness of the election process itself has demonstrated to the people and to a ‘watching world’ that this country is still a democracy, in the face of attempts to portray it otherwise. The Military spokesman emphatically rebutted stories of alleged plots to deploy service personnel to intimidate voters. Police reported a 50 per cent drop in election-related ‘incidents.’ Maithripala Sirisena, the ‘surprise candidate’ of the joint opposition was sworn in at a ceremony at Independence Square just 26 hours after polling ended.

A different election
This presidential election differed from previous ones in many ways. Sirisena was an unusual challenger to start with, having defected from government and coming from the same political party as the president. He further bucked the trend by declaring at his swearing-in that he will not contest a second term.

The swift and very gracious manner in which Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded defeat, met with Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and transferred power to his successor was especially noteworthy. This too was a departure from the usual post-election pattern. To appreciate this gesture it must be remembered that Rajapaksa is still leader of the party that commands a majority in parliament. There was no attempt on his part to create a situation of non-cooperation with the new president. Such a move could have queered the pitch with regard to Sirisena’s 100-day programme, which includes the calling of a general election, after which a new government can be formed. On the contrary Rajapaksa has reportedly asked his cabinet to cooperate. The swearing in of Wickremesinghe as prime minister soon after Sirisena’s oath-taking could not have happened without his cooperation.

Rajapaksa’s farewell
If the mood among Sirisena’s well-wishers at Independence Square on Friday evening was euphoric, the scene at Medamulana, Hambantota where equally large crowds greeted Rajapaksa who arrived there by helicopter, was decidedly emotional, as the TV footage showed. Rajapaksa in a brief televised address to the nation said he bowed to the mandate given by the people. He appealed to them to support the new president in building on the peace he delivered by ending the 30 year war. For this he will surely go down in history — as Wickremesinghe himself has granted — no matter the deteriorating image of his administration during its latter stages.

Civil society’s contribution during the campaign period was another notable feature. The opposition candidate’s campaign itself was supported by a variety of civil society groups and individuals. For the first time, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) adopted an activist role and volunteered the services of its members to help minimise breach of law. They appeared free of charge on behalf of complainants in cases of election law violations. They helped the police to resist political pressure by encouraging them to defy any illegal orders, assuring them that the BASL would stand by them. BASL president Upul Jayasuriya was emphatic that they did not seek to support any candidate in playing this role. “Our role was based on rule of law. The idea was to support a free and fair, peaceful election where election laws were observed” Jayasuriya said. Asked if the effort was successful he said it had a ‘catalytic’ effect, and gave courage to lawyers and the judiciary.

Voting patterns
Voting patterns in this election too made it different in some respects from previous ones. Rajapaksa told his constituents in Medamulana that it was the ‘North and East vote’ that defeated him. The numbers tell the story in this matter. Sirisena secured his highest percentages of votes in the districts of the North and East. And Northern voters turned out in exceptionally large numbers compared with turnout in previous elections. In Jaffna district (which includes Kilinochchi) Sirisena got 74 per cent of the vote and in the Wanni (comprising Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya) he secured 78 per cent. In the Eastern Province, in Batticaloa district his vote share was 83 per cent, in Trinco 72 per cent and Digamadulla 65 per cent.

Voter turnout (i.e. total votes polled as a percentage of registered electors) in Jaffna district was 66 per cent compared to 26 per cent in 2010. In Wanni district the turnout this time was 73 per cent as against 40 per cent in 2010. The voter turnout for the Northern Province as a whole averaged 69 per cent, compared with 33 per cent in 2010. Voter turnout had more than doubled.

Challenges ahead
These figures would seem to support Rajapaksa’s observation that it was the North and East vote that defeated him. This situation underscores certain challenges ahead for Sirisena’s 100-day programme. As noted earlier he still needs to secure the support of parliament’s UPFA members to carry out the changes he has promised, which require a two thirds majority.

“That’s why he’s talking about a unity government,” said the head of a local think tank, a respected intellectual who did not want to be named. “He has to offer a kind of national government in which the SLFP can participate, for the 100-day programme to work.” Rajapaksa by comparison had his two thirds majority solidly behind him, he pointed out. Sirisena would have to “genuinely think about a national government” to demonstrate Sinhalese support for those reforms. Or else there is a risk that his will be seen as a government ‘elected by the minorities.’ The analyst was of the view that if this support can be mustered it would be a ‘valuable thing’. If not, it could appear that “the majority of the minorities got together with a minority of the majority to throw Mahinda Rajapaksa out.”

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