Sri Lanka’s surprise new president

Thousands in Colombo turned out to welcome new leader Maithripala Sirisena, who has promised a new political culture.

Friday January 9

Prior to Thursday’s election, no one honestly believed Maithripala Sirisena could pull it off.

Regardless, virtually everyone we spoke to in Colombo on Friday seemed to support the election result.

That’s not to say some didn’t thank the outgoing President Mahinda Rajapaksa for what one man described as “the good things he has done to bring security to this country”.

Rajapaksa is credited by most southern Sinhalese Sri Lankans for ending the war with the Tamil Tigers in 2009.

However, there is often very little critical analysis – certainly here in Colombo – about exactly how that victory was achieved.

This may have caused the trepidation many people appeared to be feeling as thousands gathered at Sirisena’s inauguration ceremony this evening.

Yes, there were cheers and applause, but it was pretty much an orderly affair.

“It feels fantastic to be starting a new future in my country,” said one young woman I spoke to.

Sirisena thanked the astonishing 49 groups and parties he says joined his coalition on their way to victory, and promised a new political culture for Sri Lanka.

His 100 days’ manifesto aims at abolishing the executive presidential powers that allowed Rajapaksa such control over the judiciary, the police and the military.

That plan starts Saturday.


Thursday January 8

It’s been a quiet, orderly election day in Colombo. Voter turnout seems to have been high, with people waking early to get to the polls before heading to work. Despite an announcement that 71,000 police were on hand, along with the army reportedly on standby, the security presence in the areas we visited was minimal and unobtrusive.

Among the voters I spoke to was one man who refused to give his name.

“I voted for Rajapaksa in 2010,” he said. “But now we’ve all had enough. He and his family are arrogant thieves. We want change now.”

Another elderly man held his purple-died finger in the air after he left the temple where he had cast his ballot. “Rajapaksa,” he said.

Thursday was the climax of a fascinating couple of months of politics in Sri Lanka. People here still say they can’t quite believe Maithripala Sirisena had the courage to do it… To stand up to this country’s leader – his former ally – and to take so many MPs and one-time Rajapaksa supporters with him.

It’s difficult to gauge just how free and fair this election was yet.

Yes, there are multiple reports of intimidation and violence, but we have to wait and see.

The fact that no TV media were allowed inside the polling stations perhaps shows how sensitive an issue this election is to the country’s leadership. But we were surprised that on only one occasion did the four or five policemen on duty at a polling station act to move us on. At all the other polling stations we visited we were permitted to film from outside, despite the government saying no TV cameras were allowed closer than 200 metres from any voting centre.

It’s widely considered that Rajapaksa will win his third election. But he should perhaps be less surprised that there’s such strong opposition to his governance and the power of his family – both among his now former political allies and well beyond.