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Sri Lankan President Appears to Lose Election
By SP_COP on January 09, 2015 | From www.nytimes.com
Sri Lankan President Appears to Lose Election With early counting showing Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa trailing his challenger, the former health minister Maithripala Sirisena, a presidential spokesman has told local media that Mr. Rajapaksa had left his official residence “to allow the new president to assume his duties.”

“President Mahinda Rajapaksa has left Temple Trees a short while ago,” said the statement from Wijeyananada Herath, Mr. Rajapaksa’s media director. “President Rajapaksa said he is leaving in order to respect the verdict of the people.”

It added that Mr. Rajapaksa had held a pre-dawn meeting with Ranil Wickramasinghe, the leader of the opposition United National Party, during which he informed Mr. Wickramasinghe that he would leave to allow his successor to assume power.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s son Namal wrote on Twitter that his family had accepted the results.

“Thank you to everyone who supported us through these years,” he said. “We respect the voice of the people and Sri Lanka’s great democracy.”

Voters in Sri Lanka turned out in unusually high numbers on Thursday for the election, which became a referendum on the performance of Mr. Rajapaksa, a larger-than-life figure who during nearly a decade in office has built close ties with China, begun a campaign of “megadevelopment” and sharply centralized power in one of Asia’s oldest democracies.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s defeat is remarkable because he had an overwhelming advantage going into the election, which he decided to hold two years ahead of schedule. His image is ubiquitous in Sri Lanka’s public spaces. Campaign rallies were opulent, well-funded affairs, where he addressed a sea of voters bused in from surrounding villages. Mr. Sirisena, unable to book stadiums, spoke to people gathered in vacant lots.

Mr. Rajapaksa had steadily tightened his grip on power over the last several years, amending the Constitution to eliminate term limits and dismissing a Supreme Court justice who resisted his changes. But he did so under favorable circumstances, riding a wave of popularity among majority Sinhalese after crushing the Tamil insurgency in the north. Since that victory, Sri Lanka had benefited from a thriving tourist industry and had the highest economic growth rate in the region, leading many to conclude that voters would tolerate his consolidation of power.

Thursday’s vote called that calculus into question, said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo. “Basically, the electorate has turned its back on misgovernance and the dynastic project, as well as authoritarianism,” he said.

After counting began on Thursday night, he said, the president must have quickly understood that he had lost the election, and been encouraged to concede by army and police officials.

“I think he saw the writing on the wall,” Mr. Saravanamuttu said. “He would have realized there was a swing. His representatives within the arms of the state would have told him, ‘Look, we are not going to buck the popular will.’ ”
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The upset introduces significant uncertainty. Mr. Sirisena has promised to abolish the strong presidency introduced by Mr. Rajapaksa and return the country to a parliamentary system, but the coalition around him is a sprawling, diverse one, including Buddhist nationalists, Marxists and center-right politicians, among others. Dayan Jayatilleka, a former diplomat who had supported Mr. Rajapaksa’s re-election bid in recent weeks, said late Thursday that he expected some turbulence to emerge in the coming months.

“The opposition will certainly have a transition plan, and chances of instability are small, because the state machinery will switch to the winner,” he said. “Instability will set in later, if at all, when the executive presidency is abolished and multipolarity has set in.”

A central question is whether Sri Lanka will begin to distance itself from China, which had become a major ally under Mr. Rajapaksa, extending billions of dollars in loans for the construction of new ports and highways. That trend was worrying to India, which made two formal complaints in recent months after Chinese military submarines were allowed to dock in Colombo.

In his manifesto, Mr. Sirisena promises to establish “equal relations” with India, China, Pakistan and Japan, and criticizes his predecessor for incurring heavy foreign debts.

“The land that the White Man took over by means of military strength is now being obtained by foreigners by paying ransom to a handful of persons,” the manifesto says. “If this trend continues for another six years, our country would become a colony, and we would become slaves.”...
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