Maithripala Sirisena has been sworn in as Sri Lanka’s new president following a bitter election that saw the surprise ousting of leader Mahinda Rajapakse after a decade in power.
Sirisena and his new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe both took the oath of office in Colombo’s Independence Square on Friday hours after Rajapakse conceded defeat, in what is being touted as one of the most peaceful in the island’s history.
The election was dominated by charges of corruption and growing authoritarianism against Rajapakse, who rewrote the constitution after his re-election in 2010 to remove the two-term limit on the presidency and give himself more powers over public servants and judges.
Sirisena said on Friday after taking the oath of office that Sri Lanka, which fell out with the West over allegations of wartime rights abuses, will mend its ties with the international community.
“We will have a foreign policy that will mend our ties with the international community and all international organisations in order that we derive maximum benefit for our people,” he said.
Ahead of the swearing-in ceremony, Rajapakse conceded defeat in an election he had been widely predicted to win before Sirisena, a member of his own party, defected to run against him.
“The president met with former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe this morning,” Rajapaksa’s press secretary, Vijayananda Herath, told AFP hnews agency.
The president concedes defeat and will ensure a smooth transition of power bowing to the wishes of the people.”
Sirisena, a former health minister and political ally of Rajapaksa, took an early lead in Thursday’s election count, with the Department of Elections saying he had 56.5 percent of the initial votes counted, compared to 42 percent collected by the incumbent.
“It seems as if they have voted for political change in this country that has seen a leader lead this country for more than ten years,” our correspondent said.
Former health minister in Rajapaksa’s government
The son of a World War II veteran
Escaped assassination attempts from Tamil rebels at least five times
Promises To reform the presidency within 100 days
To return the country to a parliamentary democracy where the police, the judiciary, and the civil service are independent institutions
Economic outlook Free-market, investor-friendly policies
Sirisena, who deserted the president and changed sides to become the opposition’s candidate in November, has vowed to root out corruption and bring constitutional reforms to weaken the power of the presidency.
Rajapaksa won handsomely in the last election in 2010, surfing a wave of popularity that sprang from the defeat in the previous year of ethnic Tamil separatists who had waged a crippling war against the state for decades.
But critics say he became increasingly authoritarian since becoming president, with several members of his family holding key positions of power.
Despite his waning popularity, Rajapaksa called the latest election early, confident that the fractured opposition would fail to find a credible challenger.
He did not anticipate the emergence of Sirisena, who dined with the president one night and turned on him the next day.
Minority Tamils are believed to have voted heavily against Rajapaksa after he ignored their demands to heal the wounds of the fighting and years of ethnic divisions.
The main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), backed Sirisena’s candidacy and said it was grateful to its supporters for electing their choice for the top job.
Rajapakse was strongly resented among Tamils in Sri Lanka after ordering a brutal military suppression of a separatist insurgency in which thousands of civilians are said to have died.
Muslims, the second-largest ethnic minority, also appear to have voted against the former president, who was accused of turning a blind eye to attacks on Muslims and other minorities by far-right Buddhist groups.
And for the country’s Sinhalese, which make up about three-quarters of the population, Sirisena’s entry into the race gave them another credible option amid Rajapaksa’s growing authoritarianism and move towards dynasty politics.
Election officials said the turnout from an electorate of about 15 million was provisionally 65 to 80 percent.