Sri Lanka's Strongman President Voted Out After Decade in Power

Mahinda Rajapaksa
Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa reacts during his final rally ahead of presidential election in Piliyandala January 5, 2015. Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost his bid for a third term on Friday, ending a decade of rule that critics say had become increasingly authoritarian and marred by nepotism and corruption.

Opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, a one-time ally of Rajapaksa who defected in November and derailed what the president thought would be an easy win, took 51.3 percent of the votes polled in Thursday's election.

Rajapaksa got 47.6 percent, according to the Election Department.

Celebratory firecrackers were set off in the capital, Colombo, after Rajapaksa accepted the victory of Sirisena, who has vowed to root out corruption and bring constitutional reforms to weaken the power of the presidency.

Sri Lanka's stock market climbed to its highest in nearly four years.

"We expect a life without fear," said Fathima Farhana, a 27-year-old Muslim woman in Colombo.

"I voted for him because he said he will create equal opportunities for all," she said of Sirisena, a soft-spoken 63-year-old from the rice-growing hinterlands of the Indian Ocean island state.

Like Rajapaksa, Sirisena is from the majority Sinhala Buddhist community but he has reached out to ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims and has the support of several small parties.

His allies say he will rebalance the country's foreign policy, which tilted heavily towards China in recent years as Rajapaksa fell out with the West over human rights and allegations of war crimes committed at the end of a drawn-out conflict with Tamil separatists in 2009.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to welcome the successful election and commended Rajapaksa for accepting the verdict of the nation's 15 million voters.

"I look forward to working with President-elect Sirisena as his new government works to implement its campaign platform of a Sri Lanka that is peaceful, inclusive, democratic, and prosperous," Kerry said in a statement.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi telephoned Sirisena to congratulate the new leader of "a close friend and neighbor".

Sri Lanka is just off India's southern coast and has historically had mixed ties with its much larger neighbor. Rajapaksa had cold-shouldered New Delhi in recent years but Sirisena told an Indian newspaper this week that "we will revert to the old, non-aligned policy".

"India is our first, main concern. But we are not against Chinese investment either. We will maintain good relations with China too," he told the Hindustan Times.

Motley Coalition

Sirisena is expected to be sworn in at Colombo's Independence Square at 6:00 p.m. (7.30 a.m. EST).

The results showed Rajapaksa remained popular among Sinhala Buddhists, who account for about 70 percent of the country's 21 million people, but Sirisena earned his lead with the support of the ethnic Tamil-dominated former war zone in the north and Muslim-dominated areas.

Rajapaksa won handsomely in the last election in 2010, surfing a wave of popularity months after the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels.

But critics say he had become increasingly authoritarian, with several members of his family holding powerful positions. Although the economy had blossomed since the end of the war, voters complained of the high cost of living.

Rajapaksa had called this election two years early, confident that the usually fractured opposition would fail to come up with a credible candidate. But he did not anticipate the emergence of Sirisena, who shared a traditional Sri Lankan dinner with him one evening and turned on him the next day.

Sirisena will lead a motley coalition of ethnic, religious, Marxist and center-right parties, which analysts say could hamper economic reform and encourage populist policies.

He has pledged to abolish the executive presidency that gave Rajapaksa unprecedented power and hold a fresh parliamentary election within 100 days.

He has also promised a crackdown on corruption, which would include investigations into big infrastructure projects such as a $1.5 billion deal with China Communications Construction Co Ltd <601800.SS> to build a port city.

It is not clear if the port, to be built on land reclaimed from the sea in Colombo, will be canceled.

However, Sirisena's backers have said a casino license given to Australian gambling tycoon James Packer's Crown Resorts Ltd <> will be withdrawn.