Sri Lanka went to the polls on Thursday in a historic election. For the first time since the island became independent in 1948, an incumbent president was voted out of office. Early Friday, bleary-eyed from a night spent flipping between news networks or frantically refreshing Twitter, Sri Lankans struggled to assimilate the news that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had conceded the race. As stunned as everyone else in the capital city of Colombo, my own reaction was to pull up Timur Kuran’s 1991 article on the unpredictability of dramatic political shifts: “Now out of Never.” Neither a defeat nor a concession seemed likely, or even possible, in late November, when Rajapaksa called snap polls two full years ahead of schedule. The move was calculated to renew his mandate before a worsening economy began to eat into his electoral majority. With the main opposition United National Party (UNP) unable to produce a candidate more exciting than their unpopular longtime leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe, Rajapaksa expected to coast to an easy victory. His campaign strategy, as always, rested on reminding ethnic Sinhalese voters of his 2009 defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
But two days after announcing the election, Rajapaksa, and nearly everyone else, got a shock. His health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, defected and announced his own candidacy, backed by the opposition. Over the course of the short campaign, Sirisena gathered a big-tent coalition of unlikely allies. Nearly every week brought news of another government minister or member of Parliament crossing to support the opposition.
Sirisena’s appeal was simple: He offered a return to non-Rajapaksa rule. At a pocket meeting on the final night of campaigning last Monday, Colombo residents clapped gleefully as a senior UNP politician explained how the Sirisena candidacy had been orchestrated, using satellite phones to escape the Rajapaksa regime’s oppressive surveillance.