For much of the past decade, the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka was more or less a family business — one that happened to be run on an island just 22 miles off the coast of the second-largest country in the world and astride a key shipping lane to the largest. By one estimate, former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his two high-ranking brothers controlled up to 70 percent of the nation’s budget, while 29 members of their extended family held senior positions in the government, civil service or industry.
Desperate to end Rajapaksa’s clan rule and break from Sri Lanka’s troubled past, including a devastating civil war, opposition forces in the island nation of over 20 million united behind an unlikely challenger in this year’s presidential election. Maithripala Sirisena, a former farmer, career bureaucrat and health minister under Rajapaksa, announced he would challenge his boss last November. Days before, Sirisena shared a dinner of rice pancakes with Rajapaksa, who happily informed him that he expected no serious opponents in the upcoming election. “When he said that nobody was going to challenge him,” the bespectacled Sirisena, dressed in his usual white sarong and tunic, later told his campaign, “I was next to him and felt sorry for him,” according to a report in The Independent.
Six weeks and a slew of reform promises later, the victorious Sirisena, whose office did not respond to interview requests, found himself atop a hopeful nation in profound upheaval. Now, with the honeymoon over, millions of Sri Lankans wait eagerly to see if their unexpected president can deliver.
Rajapaksa assumed power in 2005, when the former British colony remained embroiled in a decadeslong civil war between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the mainly Hindu Tamil minority in the north. That bloody struggle came to an end in 2009, but the growth of Sinhala nationalism allowed the Rajapaksa family and their left-leaning Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to consolidate power — specifically, to “create a dynasty and entrench his family’s rule,” says Alan Keenan, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. So Sri Lankans probably weren’t surprised when the nation’s constitution was changed to allow their president to run for a third term, which he attempted to do in a hastily called January election.Obviously, the move backfired, as a broad spectrum of political interests from different ethnic communities and parties mobilized quickly, handing Sirisena a narrow victory. The identity of the victor, a low-profile minister who’d never been seen as particularly ambitious, seemed almost secondary.
Raised in a conservative Sinhalese Buddhist family, Sirisena, the son of a World War II veteran and teacher, grew up in the rural North Central Province. After a rebellious youth, in which he was jailed for over a year for participating in a Marxist insurrection against the country’s government in 1971, he settled down to farm and earn degrees in agriculture and political science before entering the Sri Lankan Parliament in 1989 for the SLFP. There, he earned the reputation as a mild-mannered, competent government official; a teetotaler who, as health minister, introduced stronger warnings on cigarette packages. But Sirisena’s campaign was hardly mild. “The entire economy and every aspect of society is controlled by one family,” he said, according to Al Jazeera, when he announced his candidacy, promising to enact a bold slate of reforms in the first 100 days to root out corruption and strengthen the rule of law.
So far, Sirisena has managed to pass a constitutional amendment limiting the powers of his own office, ended the de facto press censorship that had silenced Rajapaksa’s critics while initiating (popular, you can imagine) investigations into Rajapaksa family members and cronies. This is rare, says Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political economist and researcher based in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. But, he adds, there’s much still to be done to prosecute the last regime. Sirisena also promised to dissolve the nation’s Parliament and hold new elections, which were recently scheduled for Aug. 17. His delay, though, has led many to decry his indecisiveness, and further reforms and foreign investment have been largely paralyzed as the country waits to vote — and while Sirisena’s own coalition erodes.
At the same time, the right-leaning United National Party, looks to gain further seats in the upcoming election. Which puts Sirisena in a tight spot: balancing his pro-democracy reputation against trying to help his own party win power. “Sirisena doesn’t want to be the man,” says Keenan, “who ran against the party’s head, beat him … and then locked his party out of power for many years.”
Still more choppy waters lie ahead: Some are agitating for the return of Rajapaksa, who recently announced he’d lead forces opposed to Sirisena in the elections. And a forthcoming report from the U.N. on human rights abuses during the country’s civil war is expected to implicate many in government. In most of what he does, Sirisena will have to weigh his nation’s relationship with India, and consider how his response will play in Beijing and Washington, D.C., especially as several China-backed projects, beneficial to the island’s fragile economy, remain in limbo.
The clock is ticking. And the cost of Sri Lanka’s prolonged wait “is not just lost time, but growing popular disenchantment,” says Keenan. “And the longer the current political disarray remains, the deeper that disenchantment will grow.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly described the UNP’s parliamentary power. It is part of a ruling coalition of parties.