The Sri Lankan presidential election on January 8 was not a revolution in the commonly-accepted format, occurring as it did via the democratic exercise of putting votes in ballot boxes — but a revolution it is. President Maithripala Sirisena was sworn in the following morning after Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded defeat, though not without first attempting to engineer a coup to prolong his stay in power. The armed forces and the police were having none of it and he was suddenly yesterday’s man. He lost because a majority of Sri Lankans were dissatisfied with a regime they saw as repressive, nepotistic and unwilling to embrace the essential changes that the end of the civil war in 2010 required. Just over 81 per cent of the electorate voted and President Sirisena gained a clear 51.2 per cent of the votes cast.
By the weekend, it was clear that there was a new broom at work. The new president pledged to end the blocking of websites as well as the intimidation of the media on all of its platforms. Government-owned newspapers quickly relegated Mr Rajapaksa to a postage-stamp sized image and changed tack. They are said to now be free to report and criticise as is usual in a democratic society. Change may not come easily to all. Some regional analysts are saying that this is a ‘last chance’ for democracy in Sri Lanka, but it is more helpfully seen as the best, rather than the last, chance. The Sri Lankan economy may seem in relatively good shape, driven by resurgent tourism and the construction industry, but the trickle-down effect has not happened for the poorest. The Rajapaksa government adamantly refused to reconcile with the Tamils, costing him millions of votes and his poor relations with the significant Muslim population cost him more. There is now much bridge-building and fence-mending to do if the promises of the campaign trail are to be turned into hard reality. The honeymoon period is likely to be brief, with an electorate that wants change and fast. We wish Sri Lanka well, and congratulate it on its democratic revolution.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 13th, 2015.
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