Sri Lanka’s new Prez Maithripala Sirisena: Man who did the impossible
In an outcome that many would have seemed impossible until a few weeks ago, Sri Lanka’s united opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena defeated incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in the country’s presidential polls.
“I wish to thank the thousands of Sri Lankans who kept their unstinted faith in me. Let’s move towards a compassionate Maithree-era”, he posted on his official website, soon after it was reported that Rajapaksa had accepted the verdict of the people and had left his official residence, Temple Trees.
Sirisena’s victory was as emphatic as it was unprecedented. He scored huge wins from the Tamil dominated North and East, and also performed well in the capital Colombo, as well as key parts of the central province. He was largely responsible for galvanising a fragmented opposition and consolidating minority vote banks against Rajapaksa, who had called early elections in an effort to preserve his flagging power.Previously the Health Minister in Rajapaksa’s government, Sirisena pulled off the ultimate coup by defecting to the opposition soon after Rajapaksa announced the date of the Presidential election. A stunned Rajapaksa often thundered at political rallies that a man who “ate hoppers with me for dinner” the night before he defected could not be trusted. Sirisena was also the general secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), of which Rajapaksa is also a member.
The main plank of his campaign was the excesses of the Rajapaksa family, whose rule he compared to a “corrupt family business”.
“A war victory and road development cannot be the only reason for re-election,” Sirisena said in an interview with al-Jazeera, during his election campaign.
Sirisena himself is a highly experienced politician. He has been active in politics since 1967, joining the SLFP at the age of 17, and has held several ministries since 1994, including that of acting defence ministry.
His main election pledges include a pledge to rollback the eighteenth amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution implemented by Rajapaksa that removed the two-term limit to the office of the President. The amendment also proposed the appointment of a parliamentary council that decides the appointment of independent posts like commissioners of election, human rights, and Supreme Court judges — a move which would have in effect allowed Rajapaksa to dictate these appointments.
Sirisena also said he would abolish Sri Lanka’s controversial executive presidency and bring back the position of prime minister – which was abolished by Rajapaksa – and reinstate opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister.
He has also pledged to hold parliamentary elections over the next three months. “We are target-oriented, we have goals to achieve within a 100-day period,” Sirisena told al Jazeera.
Sirisena capitalised on a huge wave of anti-incumbency and anger against Rajapaksa and his family, and utilised social media to the maximum to reach out to people. His page on Facebook was listed by Social Bakers as one of the fastest growing politics pages in the world, a few days before the election.
The challenge now for Sirisena will be to move forward with his ‘rainbow coalition’ which involves both hardline Sinhala nationalist groups and the Tamil National Alliance. He has already pledged to remove high security zones in the North, and return farmland, presently occupied by the military to the people. Sirisena’s government will face many challenges as it rolls back Rajpaksa’s excesses, the greatest of which will be to meet the daunting expectations of both athe various parties who supported him, and the people who voted for him.