Authoritarian president’s office reports that he has left official residence
- Jason Burke in Delhi and agencies
Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has conceded defeat in an election seen as the most significant poll for decades in the island nation.
The defeat ends a decade of rule that critics said had become increasingly authoritarian and marred by nepotism and corruption.
As the results came in overnight, a senior government official and close ally of Rajapaksa said: “We don’t have any good news. It is all bad news.”
“I think people need a change and this is democracy.”
The new president will be Maithripala Sirisena, a former loyalist and minister in Rajapaksa’s government who made a surprise bid to oust the region’s longest-serving leader.
Celebratory firecrackers could be heard exploding in the capital, Colombo, after the president’s office said Rajapaksa had met a leader of the opposition to accept the victory of his challenger. There was no sign of protests or a major mobilisation of security forces, as some had feared.
Sirisena announced his candidacy hours after Rajapaksa, 69, announced he would call the election two years early in November. The farmer-turned-politician Sirisena united a fractured opposition and told voters he would root out corruption and undo unpopular constitutional reforms which have concentrated powers on the presidency.
Observers said the unexpected challenge from the former health minister destabilised the incumbents.
“It definitely threw them. They’ve not been on their game,” said Alan Keenan, of the International Crisis Group.
However Sirisena, from the Sinhala majority, has not signalled any departure from Rajapaksa’s hard line on reconciliation with the country’s Tamil minority.
The Department of Elections said that of 3.26m votes counted so far, Sirisena had taken 51.3% and Rajapaksa was trailing on 46.9%. Other candidates accounted for the rest of the votes cast by an electorate of about 15 million people. Counting should be complete by noon local time on Friday.
The campaign was marred by more than 400 incidents of violence, according to monitors, and allegations of fraud and intimidation. However the worst predictions of disruption of polls on Thursday were not fulfilled and the turnout was high.
A presidential coordinator, Wijayananda Herath, said Rajapaksa met Ranil Wickremesinghe – the veteran politician who will be prime minister under the new president – to concede defeat and asked him to “facilitate a smooth transition”.
Sirisena, 63, is expected to be sworn in later on Friday.
Rajapaksa won handsomely in the last election in 2010, surfing a wave of popularity after overseeing a final bloody victory over ethnic Tamil separatists and ending a crippling 26-year civil war. He was seeking an unprecedented third term, having pushed through a constitutional amendment.
The decision to seek early polls may have been more an acknowledgement of growing unpopularity than a statement of strength, however. The benefits of economic growth have failed to reach the poor, especially in rural areas.
Corruption and apparent nepotism – several family members hold senior office – also played a role. An adamant refusal to move on reconciliation with the Tamil minority and growing sectarian violence denied him votes among other constituencies.
Votes from the ethnic Tamil-dominated former war zone in the north of the country and Muslim-dominated areas appear to have played a key role in Sirisena’s victory.
According to one report, in the Tamil stronghold of Kilinochchi, Sirisena got nearly three-quarters of votes cast.
But Sirisena will have to lead a potentially fractious coalition of ethnic, religious, Marxist and centre-right parties and any prolonged political instability will open the way for a Rajapaksa comeback.
There are still fears of trouble. “Our culture is such that there is always a chance of post-election violence,” said Paikiasothy Savaranamuttu, of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, before the vote.