Why Sirisena’s Victory is Not a Victory for Sri Lanka’s Tamils

13 January 2015

The defeat of former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa in the recently concluded Sri Lankan presidential election was clearly unexpected. But it is unlikely to usher in the kind of changes desired by those who did the most to ensure his victory—the island's indigenous Tamil and Muslim communities that constitute 11.2 percent and 9.7 percent of the total population.

Rajapaksa went into the elections confident that his popularity among the Sinhalese Buddhists would still be intact in the wake of the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009. He had himself called for early elections, fearing that two more years in office might have further eroded an already diminishing support base among the Sinhala Buddhist community.

However, Rajapaksa had not anticipated that two months before the snap election, his trusted aide, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP) general secretary and former health minister Maithripala Sirisena, would walk out of the government to join the New Democratic Front (NDF) and emerge as the main opposition candidate. The subsequent defections by a number of ministers in the cabinet coupled with Sirisena’s endorsement by long-time opposition leader and former prime minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party (UNP) and former President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, did not help matters either.

Polling 6,217,162 votes against Rajapaksa’s 5,768,090, Sirisena was able to claim a decisive victory, with a margin of 449,072 votes. This was in large part due to the support of the Tamil and Muslim population in Sri Lanka. In the north and eastern provinces—where Tamils and Muslims constitute a majority—Sirisena received 654,511 votes more than Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa’s Sinhala vote base may have shrunk. But it is clear that he still won a greater part of the majority community’s votes, with a margin of 205,439 votes. The only reason the Sinhalese vote for Rajapaksa reduced from 65 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in this election, was because they were unhappy with the family empire he had crafted during his years in power.

Kumaravadivel Guruparan is a spokesperson for the Tamil Civil Society Forum and a lecturer in law at the University of Jaffna. He is currently on study leave, pursuing a PhD in Law at University College London.