Joint opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena was elected Sri Lanka’s new president, decisively defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa in an election the incumbent scheduled two years ahead of time hoping an easy win.
Nearly a decade after he took power and later crushed the Tamil Tigers, Rajapaksa went down to his former health minister, who earned more than 51 percent of the votes cast in Thursday’s presidential battle.
A stunned Rajapaksa conceded defeat and vacated his official residence after a brief meeting with opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in which he pledged cooperation with the new government.
Before leaving for Colombo from his home in northwestern Polonnaruwa province, Sirisena, 63, pledged not to take revenge against political foes and vowed to promote Buddhism, the country’s dominant religion.
Sirisena, who in his election campaign accused Rajapaksa of corruption, nepotism and promoting family rule, said he would “create a just and equal society” and provide good governance.
Hours before the Election Commission officially announced the result, Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first world leader to congratulate Sirisena on his “historic” victory and urged him to visit India.
Modi also called for “genuine reconciliation” under Sirisena’s leadership in Sri Lanka, where the killings of thousands of Tamils in the last stages of the war that destroyed the Tamil Tigers in 2009 is a major issue.
In recent times, Muslims and Christians have also turned bitter after coming under attack from Sinhalese-Buddhist hardliners linked to Rajapaksa while rights groups accuse him of committing war crimes.
In a letter to Sirisena, Modi said: “Your historic victory is a tribute to your vision for Sri Lanka, your capacity to connect with people’s yearning for change.
“I wish you all the success in building a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka, on foundations of genuine and effective reconciliation.” Modi also spoke to Sirisena on telephone.
Modi said in an earlier tweet: “As a close friend and neighbour, I reaffirmed India’s continued solidarity and support for Sri Lanka’s peace, development and prosperity.”
The Indian government said its high commissioner in Colombo Y.K. Sinha, would attend Sirisena’s swearing-in ceremony at the Independence Square in Colombo Friday evening.
Celebrations erupted in Colombo as supporters of Sirisena, whose dramatic defection from the cabinet to the opposition in November upset Rajapaksa’s hopes of winning a third term, burst firecrackers.
But there was none of the widely feared post-election violence.
After conceding defeat, Rajapaksa tweeted: “Thank you to all the thousands of Sri Lankans who supported me.”
Rajapaksa also told MPs from his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that he would continue to head the party.
The president also telephoned Sirisena “and discussed the next steps to be taken after the change in the administration”, a media report said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped the new regime will build “a Sri Lanka that is peaceful, inclusive, democratic and prosperous”.
As the representative of more than 40 opposition groups, Sirisena drew support not only from the Sinhalese, the country’s majority community, but also from the Tamil and Muslim minorities.
Voting was high all around the island Thursday, including in the Tamil areas where the LTTE held sway until it was militarily crushed in 2009.
A former prime minister, Rajapaksa was first elected the president in 2005, defeating Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party, and in 2010 when he defeated his former army chief Sarath Fonseka.
Fonseka was later jailed on charges of implicating the government in war crimes.
In Tamil Nadu, the MDMK and the PMK said Rajapaksa must be tried for war crimes.
Tamil Nadu’s political parties along with rights groups have accused Rajapaksa of killing thousands of Tamils in the end stages of the war that destroyed the Tamil Tigers in May 2009.