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All hail smooth transition of power

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Sri Lanka’s seventh presidential election, billed as too close to call ended in a somewhat anti-climactic fashion on Friday when Maithripala Sirisena was elected as the country’s sixth Executive President, securing 51.3 percent of the vote and defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The first results that came in, postal votes from the Ratnapura district put Rajapaksa ahead but then, Sirisena led in the count throughout and recorded a majority of almost 450,000 votes. His percentage was better than those achieved by Ranasinghe Premadasa (1988) and Chandrika Kumaratunga (1999).

Also contributing to the anti-climactic finish was the smooth transition of power. As results began filtering in from different regions, Rajapaksa conceded defeat. In the best of democratic traditions, he congratulated Sirisena and left Temple Trees for his village, Medamulana.

Rajapaksa’s graceful exit earned him many plaudits. This was in stark contrast to the assumption that his government would attempt to stay in power by ‘hook or by crook’. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe took office later on Friday in a low key ceremony.

The sharp regional differences that emerged in the results are noteworthy. It was expected that the North and East would vote for Sirisena. They did so, overwhelmingly. However, Sirisena also recorded victories in several other regions of country; so his win cannot be attributed to this alone.

The gains in the North and East contributed immensely to Sirisena’s win though. His share of the vote in the North was 75.8 percent while it was 72 percent in the East. His majorities in the two provinces were 280,000 votes and 360,000 votes respectively and heavily offset regions he lost in the South.

Throughout the campaign, the opposition camp feared that a low turnout in the North and East could hamper them. That was not to be. The turnout in the East was a high72 percent. Even in the North it was a commendable 66 percent. This propelled Sirisena’s push for a win.

In this and previous elections, Rajapaksa campaign strategists had positioned their candidate in such a manner that he would appeal to the southern Sinhala Buddhist voter. This was effective against Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2005 and against Sarath Fonseka in 2010. Last week, it cost him the election.

A closer look at the results also reveals that Rajapaksa has alienated himself from the Muslim community. This was presumably because of his inaction against the radical Bodu Bala Sena and is a grave blunder for a person who cut his political teeth displaying solidarity with Palestine.

http://www.nation.lk/edition/images/2015/01/04/Main/this-my-nation.jpgFor example, Rajapaksa won all electorates in the Galle district but lost the Galle electorate. He won all electorates in the Kegalle district but lost Mawanella. In the Puttlam district, he won all electorates but lost the Puttlam electorate. These electorates he lost all have significant Muslim populations.

The other pattern that emerges from the results is the distinct regional variation in the rest of the country. It is understandable that the deep South of the country - the Galle, Matara and Hambantota districts - voted quite overwhelmingly for Rajapaksa because they identified with him as a ‘southerner’.

However, other areas also show regional affiliations. The Wayamba and Sabaragamuwa provinces have sided decisively with Rajapaksa while the Central Province has voted convincingly for Sirisena. The large urban and plantation sector populations could have contributed to the latter.

There have been separate allegiances within provinces too. In the North Central Province, Rajapaksa won all electorates in Anuradhapura but lost all electorates in neighboring Polonnaruwa. This is, of course, explained by Sirisena hailing from Polonnaruwa which he has nursed for the past thirty years.

In the Uva province, the Badulla district voted for Sirisena but Moneragala overwhelmingly opted for Rajapaksa. The plantation sector vote in the former could have contributed to this. In the Western province, Colombo voted for Sirisena, Kalutara voted for Rajapaksa and Gampaha was evenly split.

Population demographics alone may not explain all these voting patterns but it is relevant to note especially with a general election in the offing, supposedly under the first-past-the-post system that, of the 160 electoral divisions in the country, Rajapaksa had won 91 and Sirisena won only 69 divisions.

Too much cannot be read in to this, as the votes accruing to Sirisena are not strictly on party lines; it is a collection of the anti-incumbent vote, the United National Party (UNP) vote, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party vote, the Jathika Hela Urumaya vote, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna vote and the floating vote.

What it does show, however, is that by no means has the UNP regained full confidence of the nation. This election was a vote on whether Rajapaksa should continue as president or not and the verdict is clear. Now it is time for all other parties to put to test their relative strengths at a general election.

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