President Mahinda Rajapaksa suffered a shock defeat in the presidential elections held today in Sri Lanka. As recently as November, he seemed to be riding high. He had changed the constitution to allow him to run for a third term of office and in November called for elections two years ahead of schedule because of his confidence in winning.
But things went awry quickly. His close ally and minister of health Maithripala Sirisena defected from his party almost immediately and declared his own candidacy. He managed to unite the disparate opposition forces and ethnic minorities into an unlikely coalition that supported him and this seems to have been sufficient to carry him to victory. The initial conventional wisdom had been that the government’s control of much of the media and political machinery would enable the president to stave off the challenge.
What will happen to the members of the Rajapaksa family, who benefited from rampant nepotism and corruption and had had been put in charge of so many government entities that it was estimated that they controlled over 56% of all government budget allocations, remains to be seen.
While there was some pre-election violence, the election itself was relatively peaceful and there were no allegations of serious irregularities, at least not yet. Rajapaksa has conceded defeat and said he would see to a smooth transition. Since achieving independence from the British in 1948, Sri Lanka has gone through an insurgency and a civil war that together lasted about three decades and killed hundreds of thousands of people, not to mention many race and religious riots and an attempted coup d’etat by military officers. It is quite remarkable that it has managed to maintain at least the basic element of democracy of having transitions of power through elections, even though many of the other necessary ingredients of a true democracy such as an independent judiciary and a free press have been undermined, though not destroyed.
Incidentally Rajapaksa, like many Sri Lankan politicians, is highly superstitious and consults with astrologers before making major decisions and had done so in this case before calling for elections, to make sure that the stars were in the right alignment to ensure his victory. But it is unlikely that this debacle will put astrologers out of business.