Home >news >world >What Sirisena’s win in Sri Lanka means for India

In one of the biggest upsets in Sri Lanka’s electoral history, the common opposition candidate and leader of the New Democratic Front (NDF), Maithripala Sirisena, defeated incumbent two-term president Mahinda Rajapaksa a decisive margin of 449,072 votes. According to the final results, Sirisena won 51.3% of the votes, while Rajapaksa finished at 47.6%.

Sirisena’s victory ended Rajapaksa’s 10-year tenure as Sri Lanka’s president. The island nation went to polls on Thursday to elect its seventh executive president.

Opposition leader and Prime Minister-designate Ranil Wickramasinghe of the United National Party (UNP) in a news conference on Friday morning announced that Maithripala Siripala would be sworn-in as the new executive president of Sri Lanka at Independence Square later in the evening. Wickramasinghe will also be sworn in on Friday.

Rajapaksa, who took a gamble and called for snap polls two years ahead of schedule, conceded defeat in the early hours of Friday before vacating his official residence Temple Trees in Colombo. His official media unit said that Rajapaksa would “ensure a smooth transition of power".

Sirisena, a former health minister during Rajapaksa’s second term as president, broke away from the government to announce his candidature for the presidential polls barely two months back. Before his separation from Rajapaksa, Sirisena had been the general secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which led the ruling coalition of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in Sri Lanka. His candidature was backed by a wide-ranging coalition of political parties which included the Sinhalese Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s Democratic National Alliance (DNA). It was also backed by the prominent minority parties including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC).

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called up Sirisena and congratulated the president-designate on his victory. He tweeted, “I spoke to Shri Maithripala Sirisena & congratulated him. I congratulate the people of Sri Lanka on the peaceful and democratic poll process." Modi added that, as a close friend and neighbour, he also “reaffirmed India’s continued solidarity and support for Sri Lanka’s peace, development, and prosperity."

While his victory may not reflect an immediate shift in foreign policy, India, which had a difficult working relationship with Rajapaksa, should find Sirisena easier to deal with. Throughout his campaign in his speeches and interviews, Sirisena said his government would nurture better ties with India, while also calling its policy towards its neighbours “neither anti-India nor dependent". Leader of opposition Wickramasinghe is considered to be close to India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

India’s major concerns with the now defeated president Rajapaksa’s regime included its growing proximity to China, and its increased involvement in enormous infrastructure projects, especially ports in the southern town of Hambantota and Colombo. China, in the recent past (September last year), had docked its submarines in Colombo, furthering India’s fears. In a pre-poll statement, Wickramasinghe had said that in the event of a Sirisena victory, the $1.34 billion Chinese Colombo Port City project would be scrapped “for environmental reasons". The port city project is being built at one of Colombo’s most prominent locations—the Galle Face.

India is currently involved in the construction of 50,000 housing units in the conflict-affected Northern province of Sri Lanka. The $270 million grant flagship project, announced in June 2010, has seen repeated delays, stalling its progress, which is a matter of concern.

India is also Sri Lanka’s largest global trading partner, with bilateral trade at nearly $3.6 billion as of 2013. Ircon International Ltd, the Indian Railways’ construction company, has undertaken railway line reconstruction and restoration projects in the northern part of Sri Lanka. The railway lines were damaged during the civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. Besides, it is also currently upgrading the railway line that connects the capital city of Colombo to Matara in the southern part of Sri Lanka.

Apart from infrastructure, the other major factor that affects India’s relations with its southern neighbour is Sri Lanka’s post-war reconciliation efforts with Tamils in the northern part of the country. Sirisena’s campaign has been silent on the matter of increased devolution of power to the Tamils in the North. Equally, there was no clarity on Sirisena’s likely approach to a UN investigation on Rajapaksa’s involvement in alleged war crimes. Rajapaksa refused to cooperate with the probe, the findings of which are likely to be released in the next two months or so. In his manifesto, Sirisena had promised to set up a special domestic court to investigate allegations of war crimes, a demand that India and other Western nations have repeatedly made. During his campaign, the president-elect also said, “I will not allow President Rajapaksa, his family or any member of our armed forces to be taken before any international war crimes tribunal."

Likewise, Wickramasinghe has also proposed a truth and reconciliation commission on the lines of the one in South Africa. In December last year, he said, “We need some sort of a truth-seeking mechanism where there will be apologies and forgiving."

Sirisena’s surge in Friday’s counting was confirmed as numbers from the North began coming in. Voters in the Tamil-dominated North, especially Jaffna district, have decisively voted for Sirisena, who won 74.42% of the votes against Rajapaksa who could only managed 21.85%. In Vanni, another district in the North, Sirisena won comprehensively, winning 75.66% of the votes to Rajapaksa’s 21.74%. Sirisena’s mandate in the North, largely driven by the support from the Tamil parties, could hasten their demands for a resolution and settlement to the larger ethnic problem in the country.

Even in the Eastern province, dominated by the minority, especially Tamils and Muslims, Sirisena won 81.62% of the votes in Batticaloa and 71.84% of the votes in Trincomalee. Rajapaksa, who urged people to vote for him by calling himself the “known devil", could only manage 16.22% and 26.67% of the votes in Batticaloa and Trincomalee, respectively.

Sri Lanka, however, chose the unknown angel.

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