THE outcome of Sri Lanka’s presidential election has many lessons for Pakistan, the most important being the people’s wisdom as seen in the power of the ballot box. It also shows in unmistakable terms that even a successful war against terrorism doesn’t have to be at the expense of democratic values, for that is where Mahinda Rajapaksa was vulnerable, and lost.

Seeking a third term as president, Mr Rajapaksa was voted out of office for the authoritarian policies he pursued to turn his regime virtually into an elected dictatorship. That the angry Tamil, Muslim and Christian minorities voted against him was only one of the factors in Maithripala Sirisena’s victory. The Muslims were alienated by the activities of Bodu Bala Sena, an extremist Buddhist organisation, besides the riots in which Muslim villages were burnt and thousands rendered homeless in southwestern parts of the country. The Tamils and Christians, too, felt insecure in an atmosphere where the freedom to protest was increasingly being restricted. However, the major factor in Mr Rajapaksa’s defeat was the division within the majority Sinhalese community.

Mr Sirisena, the victor in Thursday’s election, is like Mr Rajapaksa, Sinhalese, and hit him hard where he was most vulnerable, especially his persecution of journalists and rights groups agitating against war crimes during and after the war on the Tamil Tigers. Mr Rajapaksa had called the election two years earlier, because he thought the opposition would not be able to field a common candidate. However, Mr Sirisena, once general secretary in Mr Rajapaksa’s Freedom Party, sprang a surprise by mobilising all dissent and launched a campaign that appealed to a wide variety of people. He accused Mr Rajapaksa not only of human rights violations, persecution of the media and war crimes but also of “plundering” the country and the natural wealth, and turning government into a family enterprise by placing his brothers and son in key positions. Mr Rajapaksa’s defeat emphasises the fact that a successful war on terrorism is no guarantee of a regime’s stability and continuity, and that voters go by a leader’s success or failure in addressing the people’s grievances. A denial of human rights or curtailment of freedoms in the name of a war on terrorism doesn’t necessarily win the people over. The election was held on Thursday, Mr Rajapaksa conceded defeat, and on Friday Mr Sirisena took the oath of office, signalling a smooth transition.

Published in Dawn January 11th , 2014

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