Let’s hope communities unite after Sri Lanka’s shock presidential elections

Maithripala Sirisena

The 8th January 2015 presidential elections in Sri Lanka were always going to be one of the most decisive in Sri Lanka’s history, writes development, humanitarian and peace building consultant Amjad Mohamed Saleem.

Win and the incumbent (Mahinda Rajapaksa) had about 8 years of unopposed power to consolidate his position and establish his family dynastic rule in Sri Lanka stretching into the private and public sectors.

A loss for the challenger, Maithripala Sirisena, (and the other government MPs who were opposing the incumbent) and it would have meant a sure exile.

Moreover, in the event of a loss for Rajapaksa it was envisaged that he wouldn’t give up so easily and there would be bloodshed.

So in a nutshell this was an all-or-nothing election with much to win or lose for both sides.

In the end, the president lost by about 600,000 votes and left “peacefully” in the early hours of the 9th, once the army (as it has now transpired) refused to follow orders and allow a coup to take place.

Why did Rajapaksa lose?

Now there has been much speculation as to why Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election, because it was his to lose rather than the challenger’s to win. In the end the truth is that the election was a badly placed gamble influenced by an astrologer.

Mahinda Rajapaksa
Mahinda Rajapaksa

The incumbent still had two more years on his second term but felt compelled to shore up his flagging support amongst his traditional base (which is mainly the Sinhala Buddhist) vote. This was done largely through antagonizing the minority ethnic and religious communities, namely the Muslims.

However, one can hardly avoid the fact that for years now, people have been talking about a need for a change.

The fact is that corruption and nepotism had gotten so rampant; press and general media freedom had gotten so bad; the conduct of politicians had become untenable; and there was a danger of an arrogant regime doing what it pleased going down the route of authoritarianism.

This desire for change was reflected in not only the high voting turnout of 82% but the manner in which the election was lost.

Many of Rajapaksa’s supporters are choosing to now paint this as an election based on ethnic lines, to say that the incumbent lost due to the minority vote. However, this doesn’t do justice to the fact that the 8th of January saw a people’s movement for change come together.

This was truly a Sri Lankan victory that was done irrespective of ethnicity or faith.

Breakdown of the vote

Looking at the overall numbers, the new president won just over 50% of the vote.

16% of the votes came from the north and east (which is where the minority Tamils and Muslims form a majority) and 84% from outside the north and east (where the majority Sinhalese community are).

Now it can’t be denied that the difference by which Sirisena won in areas where minorities are based was significantly higher than the difference by which Rajapaksa won in areas where majorities are based. But equally the challenger did win in areas where majorities are based.

It’s also clear that Rajapaksa overwhelmingly lost votes from even his traditional voter base (going down from over 6 million to 5.7 million) to the new president.

Numbers aside, these trends point to a comprehensive example of people having spoken with the biggest weapon they had: the ballot box.

Equally impressive is the determination of the armed forces and the judiciary to prevent the election being disrupted, which has often been the case in other South Asian countries.

Turning point for Muslim community?

So the elections must be also viewed as a turning point in terms of the maturity of the electorate and could actually spark the end of the ethnic parties, at least for the Muslim community.

In previous elections, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (the largest Muslim political party) has jockeyed for political positions and favours based on the number of votes they could muster, and based on how they could get their constituents to vote.

Sri Lanka Muslims2However in this election, it was clear from the beginning that a large portion of the Muslim votes would go to the challenger. Thus Muslim politicians were forced to join the challenger because they needed to retain credibility with their constituents.

Muslim votes were gathered despite the Government Muslim politicians joining the opposition. Muslims were also encouraged to vote through the use of Friday sermons and even on the day, the mosques played a part in mobilising people to vote.

There is of course a lot of expectation on the shoulders of the new president. He has an ambitious 100 day plan, which now becomes the focus of the country.

This can only be done through a national government with the sole purpose of a realignment of governance in Sri Lanka, the restoration of people’s confidence and of its public identity and image.

More importantly, the task is to bring wounded communities together and ensure that there is a space and place for everyone.

If this is not the mandate with which the new Government operates, learning the mistakes of the past, then it will only be a matter of time, before we are once again faced with a problem of ethnic conflict.

If this should arise, then we would have done a disservice to the thousands of innocent people whose blood has been shed for a better country and future.

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