Defeat in Sri Lanka’s presidential election for the long-time incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seemed unthinkable when he decided to call a snap poll two years ahead of time. That he should find himself out of office, and be departing with good grace, are dual victories for Sri Lankan democracy.
Mr Rajapaksa has some sound achievements to his name. The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 devastated elements of the island’s economy and left emotional scars on its people. The bloody conclusion of the island’s civil war further weakened several key industries. Yet Mr Rajapaksa, having overseen the final defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, has since been generally successful in his efforts to rebuild the economy.
Nonetheless, the brutality of Sri Lanka’s civil conflict, and particularly the atrocities committed during its final, grotesque stages, will not be forgotten. Mr Rajapaksa was in office when government forces acted abominably in their efforts to defeat the Tamil Tigers (notwithstanding that there were appalling incidents on both sides). And he has failed to deal fully with the legacy of the war, and the subsequent impoverishment of many Tamils. Regular attacks on press freedom are a further stain on his record.
It was no surprise that Tamils and other minority groups opposed Mr Rajapaksa’s candidacy, and the emergence of Maithripala Sirisena, Mr Rajapaksa’s former ally, as a figure who could unite opposition parties was crucial to the high turnout among those communities. But a significant proportion of the majority Sinhalese also switched allegiance to Mr Sirisena. For many of them, it was present-day corruption and nepotism, rather than memories of the war, that were the deciding factors in the election. Corruption in government can, after all, be as corrosive of public trust as the more obvious maladies from which Sri Lanka has suffered.
Mr Sirisena must now show that his promises to govern openly are more than mere politicking. He must also accept that the divisions of the recent past still need to be addressed.
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