In a stunning election result that was unthinkable just weeks ago, Sri Lanka’s longtime president acknowledged Friday that he had been defeated by a onetime political ally, signaling the fall of a family dynasty and the rise of former Cabinet minister Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena, who defected from the ruling party in a surprise move in November, capitalized on the outgoing President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s unpopularity among this island’s ethnic and religious minorities, as well as grumbling among the Sinhalese majority about his growing power and the country’s economic troubles. Sirisena, 63 and a longtime politician, was expected to be sworn in later Friday. The wider world was watching to see if the election was carried out fairly, especially since Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in the country on Tuesday. So far, there were no signs of post-election violence. Rajapaksa’s defeat — as well as his quiet early-morning concession, leaving his official residence while votes were still being counted — came as a surprise in this nation of 21 million.
Rajapaksa had built up immense power after defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, using his huge popularity with Sinhalese majority who hailed him as a king. He used his parliamentary majority to scrap a constitutional two-term limit for the president and gave himself the power to appoint many top officials.
When Sri Lanka’s chief justice objected to his moves, he orchestrated her impeachment.