Tamils oust Rajapaksa from Sri Lankan presidency

President loses election to Maithripala Sirisena by a margin of less than 4 percentage points · Massive Tamil support to Sirisena is key to understand the result · Tamil National Alliance had called Tamils to vote against Rajapaksa, whom it deems as anti-Tamil

The votes of the Tamil people have been instrumental in ousting Mahinda Rajapaksa from power, who last Thursday lost the Sri Lankan presidential election. Rajapaksa, who has been in office from 2005 till 2015, got 47.6% of the total Sri Lankan votes, and was defeated by opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, who gathered 51.3% of the votes.

Tamils make up 15% of the Sri Lankan population, a country with a Sinhalese ethnic majority (75%). Both Rajapaksa and Sirisena are Sinhalese. But the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), had made it clear that Tamils should make every effort to oust Rajapaksa, and thus called Tamils to vote for Sirisena.

In the Tamil majority areas in Sri Lanka's north-east (Tamil Eelam) and centre (Nuwara Eliya), Sirisena reached 60% to 80% of the votes, well above the 51% state-wide. This is the case for the district of Jaffna, where virtually the entire population is Tamil: Sirisena took 74% of the votes there.

The Sirisena-Rajapaksa votes' total difference in the Tamil majority districts of Jaffna, Vanni, Batticaloa and Nuwara Eliya (570,000) was larger than the difference in votes between the two candidates in the whole country (450,000). Put it another way: if Tamil majority areas had not voted, Rajapaksa would have won the election.

Shortly after the election was held, the TNA said it now expects a more Tamil-friendly approach from Sirisena, including a "honorable resolution of the national question." The Tamil party advocates a federal model for Sri Lanka where Tamil Eelam is devolved powers in areas such as legislation, tax and education.

It is likely that the Tamil party will have a hard work in convincing Sirisena. The newly elected president is in fact a former member of the Rajapaksa government. Sirisena resigned because he considered that Rajapaksa was drifting to autocratic rule. Sirisena's manifesto does not include measures on decentralization and federalism, and the constitutional chapter focuses on promises for greater democratization and transparency, and the fight against corruption.

At least 40,000 civilians killed in 2009

Rajapaksa was the president who led the 2009 offensive against the Tamil Tigers, a guerrilla which had been fighting for Tamil Eelam independence since 1983. The final phase of the conflict caused tens of thousands of deaths (including 40,000 civilians, according to the United Nations) and hundreds of thousands of displaced people. Rajapaksa refused to investigate allegations of war crimes against his army. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch documented cases of sexual violence against Tamil women by Sri Lankan soldiers. Thousands of Tamils have not been able to return home.

(Image: Sri Lankan citizens listening to Sirisena after his victory / picture by Indi Samarajiva.)