Adecade in power had clearly gone to the head of (the now former) Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose supporters had recently taken to calling him “the king.” In September 2010, he passed a controversial constitutional amendment removing presidential term limits and effectively scrapping independent appointments to the Supreme Court and various independent commissions. Brimming with confidence, Rajapaksa decided, last November, to call presidential elections two years early on 7 January 2015, in the hope of winning a third seven-year term as president. Few expected him to face any major obstacle in doing so. Even fewer expected him to lose.

Rajapaksa seemed to have a tight grip on power. His three brothers held the positions of Defence Minister, Economic Development Minister, and Speaker of Parliament, while various other relatives also had prominent positions. The last person to have challenged him in a presidential election found himself in jail the week after. The head of the Supreme Court was impeached for ‘financial irregularities’ in 2013, after the court struck down a number of government bills. The UN and other international organizations were denounced for ‘interfering’ when they brought up the need to investigate allegations of war crimes committed during the country’s civil war. Few in Sri Lanka dared to raise this issue, and were often wary of criticizing the government more generally, as a culture of intimidation and political thuggery began to emerge. The country often found itself near the top of rankings of places unsafe for journalists. Yet, perhaps most importantly, Rajapaksa was still popular amongst many of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority for finally ending the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, and seemed to lack a credible opponent going into these latest presidential elections.

The day after Rajapaksa called the election, a race that had at first seemed like a routine and unexciting re-election of an increasingly authoritarian leader suddenly roared into life. The opposition announced that its presidential candidate would be Rajapaksa’s own Health Minister, and the General-Secretary of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena, and a number of other SLFP MPs, who had apparently been scheming for weeks on the smartphone app Viber, defected from the party, as a furious Rajapaksa complained bitterly that the two had shared a meal the night before Sirisena’s “treachery.” What Sirisena, a Sinhala born to a rural family in the interior of the country, lacked in charisma relative to Rajapaksa, he made up for in terms of his former seniority in the SLFP and the fact that he was not a polarizing figure. The opposition rapidly coalesced around what finally looked to be a viable candidate. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who had been sidelined in the SLFP under Rajapaksa, came out of retirement to back him, while Ranil Wickremasinghe, leader of the opposition United National Party (UNP), also pledged his support.

In a move that ultimately proved crucial, parties representing Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim minorities (totalling around a quarter of the population) swung their weight behind Sirisena as well. While Rajapaksa had been popular amongst many Sinhalese people, most Tamils felt that he had made next to no effort at reconciliation or redressal of past abuses after the war. They, like the country’s Muslims, were also alarmed at the rise of the Bodu Bala Sena, a Buddhist extremist group that often led mob attacks against religious minorities. The Bodu Bala Sena were at best tolerated, and at worst tacitly supported, by the Rajapaksa regime. While Sirisena, who had been a senior member of the Rajapaksa regime and kept relatively quiet about minority issues during the election, may not have been minority parties' ideal candidate, the possibility of him being able to unseat Rajapaksa was seemingly good enough. Strangely enough, Sirisena also received support from the JHU (National Heritage Party), a Sinhalese and Buddhist nationalist party that defected from the Rajapaksa coalition.

Rajapaksa pulled out all the stops in a campaign that increasingly looked like a battle for his political survival. A number of local and international organizations accused him of misusing state media as a campaign tool, while others complained of intimidation. The Bodu Bala Sena unsurprisingly backed Rajapaksa. Known to be a highly superstitious man, Rajapaksa had a large team of astrologers, many of whom came on state television to prophesize his electoral victory. Yet Sirisena, whose campaign drew attention to the growing culture of authoritarianism and political thuggery under Rajapaksa, the proliferation of his relatives in politics, and rising inflation, drew large crowds at his rallies, as the race steadily grew tighter. As the election drew closer, Rajapaksa’s hold on power began to look shaky, and victory seemed within reach for Sirisena and his broad coalition of supporters.

Election day itself was surprisingly calm, especially in a country that usually witnessed small-scale electoral violence in the past. As votes were counted through the night, indications of a Sirisena victory began to emerge. At dawn on 8 January, many hours before final results were due, Rajapaksa conceded defeat and vacated his official residence, Temple Trees, for the successful challenger, who ultimately won with 51.2% of the vote. While world leaders have praised Rajapaksa for the smooth transition, a spokesman for Sirisena has made mysterious allegations that the former president tried and failed to persuade the army to deploy troops in a final bid to retain power as it became clear he was going to lose the election. Sirisena picked up a substantial number of Sinhalese votes, suggesting that there was significant discontent with Rajapaksa’s heavy-handed style of ruling, though Rajapaksa continued to hold sway in some areas, especially the south. Yet it was the minority vote that ultimately proved decisive. Tamil and Muslim majority areas in the north and east of the country saw high turnout and huge margins of victory for Sirisena.

The direction in which President Sirisena will take Sri Lanka is in many ways still unclear. For most of the election campaign, his most salient feature for minority voters was that he was not Mahinda Rajapaksa, while for disgruntled former Rajapaksa loyalists, it was that he was not all that different. His broad coalition contains within it all sorts of opposing forces. It includes all major parties representing minorities, but also Buddhist nationalists like the JHU. It had made no promises to minorities, but came to power largely through their votes and their aspirations for greater autonomy, protection from discrimination and violence, and equal opportunities. Indeed, in the aftermath of Sirisena’s victory, many Tamil and Muslim leaders have emphasised that this was a vote not for Maithripala Sirisena, but rather for the hope of any sort of change. His coalition also includes highly ambitious leaders, like Wickremasinghe and Kumaratunga, who have been opponents in the past. It is not hard to foresee ways in which this coalition could be weakened by infighting or end up letting some of its supporters down.

It is possible that Sirisena himself ultimately may not matter much in the long run. His central campaign promise was to abolish the executive presidency in his first 100 days in power, ceding greater powers to the Prime Minister and parliament. The new Prime Minister is Ranil Wickremasinghe, known to be slightly pro-business and pro-Western, though it is unclear whether this might translate into greater openness towards international pressure for more conciliatory policies towards minorities. His formidable former opponent, and the daughter of two former Prime Ministers, Chandrika Kumaratunga, is said to be eyeing some sort of Deputy Prime Minister-like position. How the two will work with each other, and with Sirisena–without whom they would likely still be languishing in opposition–will be important to the stability of the coalition.

Rajapaksa’s downfall may also have implications for Sri Lanka’s wider geopolitical position in Asia. Facing increasing criticism from the West and India on his government’s human rights record, Rajapaksa grew closer to China, which financed many infrastructure projects in the country, most notably the massive new port at Hambantota. This warming of Sino-Sri Lankan relations happened much to the consternation of India, which disliked what it saw as Chinese attempts at intruding into the Indian Ocean region. With Rajapaksa gone, other powers, particularly India, may see an opportunity to recover lost ground, though India’s Tamil political parties have often pressured its government to hold Sri Lanka more accountable for its treatment of minorities. Sirisena has promised to treat all major Asian powers equally, though it is uncertain whether this statement is meant to reassure India that China will be treated less favourably or reassure China that it will not.

For now at least, the dominant narrative of this election is that of a triumph for democracy, despite the questions that remain for the future. A man who seemed bent on holding onto power was ultimately forced to let go. Minority groups suffering from isolation and even violence raised their voices decisively through the ballot box. A six-year-old military victory, nationalist rhetoric, and the promise of mere stability were no longer enough for an electorate that now demanded better governance, and a President and Prime Minister instead of a ‘King.’

Rajapaksa ended Sri Lanka’s civil war. We can only hope that Sirisena will now help the country move out from its shadow into an era of more stable and equitable democratic politics.