Sri Lanka Votes to End Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Presidency – Wall Street Journal

Posted: Friday, January 09, 2015

Mahinda Rajapaksa at his final public rally for the presidential elections, in Kesbewa, southeast of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday.
ENLARGE

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka—Sri Lankan voters ousted their president,

Mahinda Rajapaksa,

after nearly a decade in office and elected instead a candidate who has pledged to reverse what the opposition termed the country’s slide toward authoritarianism and family rule.

In a meeting with tearful supporters in the capital on Friday morning, Mr. Rajapaksa conceded defeat in Thursday’s vote and said he would “accept the people’s verdict” in favor of challenger

Maithripala Sirisena,

according to

Thilanga Sumathipala,

a member of parliament who was present.

At a news conference,

Ranil Wickremesinghe,

a senior opposition leader, said Mr. Sirisena’s “victory was complete” and that he would be sworn in as president on Friday evening. Mr. Wickremesinghe said he had spoken to Mr. Rajapaksa who assured him there would be “a smooth transition of power.”

Mr. Sirisena—who until a November defection was a member of Mr. Rajapaksa’s cabinet—has vowed to amend the constitution within 100 days to strip executive powers from the presidency and move toward a parliamentary system of government headed by a prime minister.

Mr. Wickremesinghe is set to become the next prime minister.

Preliminary results on Friday morning showed that Mr. Sirisena was leading with nearly 51% of the vote, according to the Election Commission. Mr. Rajapaksa, who was seeking an unprecedented third term, received nearly 48%.

The election marked a sharp reversal in the political fortunes of Mr. Rajapaksa, who was hailed as a national hero after his government crushed a bloody and long-running separatist insurgency by the country’s ethnic Tamil minority in 2009.

In recent years, Mr. Rajapaksa has steered Sri Lanka, which occupies an increasingly important strategic position in the Indian Ocean, closer to China, which has lent his government billions of dollars for highways and other major projects. Beijing is seeking to strengthen its naval presence in the region.

The opposition, including once-close allies of the president who deserted him in November, said Mr. Rajapaksa, who pushed through legal changes ending presidential term limits and expanding the office’s clout, had concentrated too much power in his own hands—and those of his relatives.

Mr. Rajapaksa and his supporters argued that a strong presidency is necessary to maintain security and national unity in a country riven with communal tensions.

The opposition campaign dismissed that argument. “It’s a lame excuse to frighten people,” said

Mangala Samaraweera,

a member of parliament who served as Mr. Rajapaksa’s foreign minister during his first term and is now backing Mr. Sirisena. “Parliamentary systems can deal with any problems.”

Mr. Sirisena’s camp sought to focus attention on what it alleges is widespread corruption in Mr. Rajapaksa’s administration, as well as what it terms the Rajapaksa clan’s outsize presence in politics.

One of Mr. Rajapaksa’s brothers is secretary of defense, while another is minister of economic development. A third is the speaker of Parliament. Mr. Rajapaksa’s son is a lawmaker. And other relatives hold posts at state enterprises.

The president’s strongest base of support has traditionally been among the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population, especially those in rural areas. His campaign emphasized his leadership in ending the country’s civil war and ending terrorism, using the slogan: “A secure nation, a prosperous future.”

But there is also significant unhappiness with Mr. Rajapaksa, especially in urban areas and among minority voters alienated by postwar triumphalism and the rise of hard-line Buddhist groups. Residents of the president’s home district in the south of the country said that even there, support for him was waning.

“People are dissatisfied,” said one 36-year-old man who declined to named, saying he feared retribution. “It’s clear there’s a lot of corruption and mismanagement” in government projects, he said, with the result that their “benefits aren’t being felt by the poor.”

—Uditha Jayasinghe contributed to this article.

Write to Gordon Fairclough at gordon.fairclough@wsj.com

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