When Sri Lanka strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa called elections two years ahead of the schedule in November 2014, he was anticipating an easy victory, which would secure him a third-term as President. Poll results are now in. Sri Lanka has elected former member of the Rajapaksa cabinet and a joint candidate for several opposition forces, Maithripala Sirisena, in the most closely contested elections in the country’s history.  Although credited with putting an end to a long, drawn-out insurgency by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 and steady economic growth in the following years, Mr Rajapaksa remained unmoved by calls against consolidation of power, appeasement of his Sinhalese base to the detriment of Muslim and Tamil minorities, and corruption. His increasingly authoritarian approach had also been described as a “one-family-rule”, with brothers and other family members occupying key positions, often leaving even party veterans outside the inner circle.

When the President-elect, Maithripala Sirisena, defected a day after he had met for dinner with Mr Rajapaksa and presented himself as an alternative, the divided opposition, for the first time in over a decade, saw an opportunity to present a real challenge. Mr Sirisena’s populist slogans against corruption, promises of abolishing the executive presidency in favour of a Westminster-style parliamentary system to create a more inclusive, tolerant state not only struck a chord with the politically marginalized minorities but also appealed to a liberal section of the Sinhalese majority. A unified opposition front, including support from former President Chandrika Kamaratunga, Mr Sirisena’s strong Sinhalese credentials and disenchantment amongst minorities and the rural populace – the result is a culmination of these significant factors.

But now begins the real challenge: to ensure a smooth transition and keep the diverse forces that won the election, together in the months and years ahead. Mr Rajapaksa secured more than 47% votes, which means he is still very much in the game. Inclusive politics requires compromise, making adjustments and reconciling conflicting agendas and aspirations. It’s a difficult process, promising many hardships along the way, but it is indeed doable. It is hoped that Mr Sirisena will be able to live up to expectations and the people of Sri Lanka will be rewarded for consistently showing faith in the ballot.