In a stunning election result that was unthinkable just weeks ago, Sri Lanka's longtime president Mahinda Rajapaska has been defeated by his onetime political ally and former cabinet minister Maithripala Sirisena. Rajapaksa, whose nearly a decade-long rule was marked by the defeat of LTTE and end of civil war, appeared to have been swamped by anti-incumbency, allegations of corruption and nepotism and his divisive policies that estranged minority Tamils and Muslims. A Sinhala hardliner himself, Sirisena, 63, squeaked past the finishing line in a close contest with the approval of minority voters, besides the liberals and youth among the Sinhalese.
“I will ensure I deliver the change I promised. I will strengthen Sri Lanka's foreign relations to maintain friendly relations with all nations,” he said soon after he was sworn in as Sri Lanka's sixth President.
In the run-up to the election, Sirisena had pledged to abolish the executive presidency within 100 days of being elected and repeal the controversial 18th amendment under which a President can seek re-election any number of times. Supreme Court judge K Sri Pawan administered the oath of office to Sirisena at a simple ceremony at the Independence Square in Colombo. “We will have a foreign policy that will mend our ties with the international community and all international organisations in order to derive the maximum benefit for our people,” Sirisena said. Significantly, he said he would not seek a second term. The defeated Lankan President Rajapaksa, had asked Tamils to vote for a “known devil” in the elections.
India will be happy with the election of Sirisena as New Delhi would have preferred to deal with just about anybody other than Rajapaksa when it came to relations with Sri Lanka and developing geopolitics in the region, not least because of the manner in which the Lankan strongman was threatening to turn his country into a strategic asset for China.
India's anger knew no bounds last year when Sri Lanka allowed Chinese submarines to dock at the Colombo port twice, the second time even after NSA Ajit Doval lodged a strong protest. The government here felt Lanka was using Beijing to needle and humiliate India.
Sirisena is known to be a Sinhala hardliner but he is also expected to be mindful of India's concerns over strategic issues, particularly over any military engagement with Beijing which could hurt New Delhi's interests. Sirisena's announcement in his election manifesto that he would maintain equal relations with India and China was seen favourably by New Delhi as it came at a time when Lanka's dalliance with China was increasingly unsettling India.
In fact, at least in the short term, China has more to worry about Sirisena as his likely prime minister and UNP functionary Ranil Wickramasinghe had declared recently that Sri Lanka would scrap the $1.34 billion Colombo port city project financed by the Chinese -apparently because of environmental concerns. That will be a real setback for China which had a free run in the country until now doling out loans at astronomical interest rates.