COLOMBO, Jan 9, 2015 (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s president-elect Maithripala Sirisena won huge popular support for his pledge to topple Mahinda Rajapakse and root out corruption, but the mild-mannered former minister faces a major challenge in uniting his disparate support base.
The 63-year-old Sirisena became an unlikely rallying point for disaffected Sri Lankans when he walked out of Rajapakse’s government a day after sharing dinner with the strongman president.
His pledge to root out official corruption and restore the independence of the judiciary tapped into a simmering resentment over what many saw as Rajapakse’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
"From tomorrow, we will usher in a new political culture," he said as he cast his vote on Thursday.
"There will be peace and rule of law under my presidency."
Like Rajapakse, the former health minister is a Buddhist from the majority Sinhalese community.
He was a member of Rajakse’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, although the president threw him out after he announced his challenge.
His vision for the country ties in closely with the free-market, investor-friendly policies of the opposition United National Party (UNP) which provided him with the political base to challenge Rajapakse.
But many voters appear to have chosen him because of who he isn’t, not because of who he is.
Sirisena won the support of many of Sri Lanka’s minority groups, including Tamils, as he offered a credible alternative to the long-time leader.
Analysts say he faces a challenge to unite the rainbow coalition of parties that helped him secure victory, from right-wing Sinhalese nationalists to Marxists.
He has pledged to reform the presidency within 100 days, abolishing many of its executive powers and returning the country to a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy where the police, the judiciary, and the civil service are independent institutions.
His Tamil backers will also be hoping he can succeed where his predecessor failed and bring about post-war reconciliation.
"One crucial factor is that he is the product of a diverse coalition of parties whose members all have different agendas," said Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director for the International Crisis Group.
"First he will move to try to repair the damage done under his (Rajapakse’s) watch. Once that’s done you’ll have the chance to start worrying about post-war accountability. But it’s hard to see them getting to address that in the short term."
– ‘Likeable chap’ –
Former colleague Austin Fernando described Sirisena as a "mild-mannered, soft-spoken politician".
"He is unabrasive. A likeable chap who can easily command respect," said Fernando, a retired senior civil servant.
The decision to turn against the powerful president demonstrated a steeliness that belies that mild reputation.
Former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who mounted a failed bid to challenge Rajapakse in 2010, was jailed for over two and a half years on controversial charges and through an even more contentious legal process.
"I know what happened to General Fonseka can happen to me too," Sirisena said at the start of the campaign.
Dressed in the white sarong and tunic favoured by Sri Lankan politicians, Sirisena appeals to a rural electorate while his main backer, the centre-right United National Party (UNP), is more popular in urban areas.
The son of a World War II veteran, Sirisena entered parliament in 1989 after settling in the eastern district of Polonnaruwa.
He was a soft target for the Tamil Tiger rebels during the height of fighting and says the separatists may have tried to assassinate him on at least five occasions.
He was jailed for nearly two years after being arrested on suspicion of leading a revolt against the government in 1971 when he was just 20.