Sri Lanka's hopeful surprise

Countries, like India, that see a chance to reboot ties with Colombo, following the surprise election of President Maithripala Sirisena, must take into account the sober realities of his nation's political legacy and the opportunism latent in any strategic adjustments.

The fraught state of Sri Lankan politics was evident in the manner in which former president Mahinda Rajapaksa lost his electoral gamble to remain in power. Once a political giant for bringing Tamil Tiger rebels to their knees and for ushering in growth after decades of strife, he had confidently called for polls two years earlier than required. But, ironically, it was anti-Rajapaksa sentiment among voters, more than pro-Sirisena fervour, that led ultimately to his downfall.

That common distaste for Mr Rajapaksa's regime is hardly a sound foundation for the economic and political reforms sought by the uneasy alliance supporting Mr Sirisena - the main opposition party, a hardline Buddhist nationalist party, and groups representing Tamils and Muslims. Holding this coalition together will sorely test Mr Sirisena but he must persevere - to correct the misgovernance and excesses of the past, achieve national reconciliation, and put an economy with a junk rating on a sound footing. Given the formidable scope of his quest, Mr Sirisena should choose his international allies well.

President Xi Jinping had bet heavily on Mr Rajapaksa's continuing reign by pouring billions of dollars of investments into huge projects like a port city. Colombo's role in Mr Xi's vision of a "maritime Silk Road" and a greater presence in the Indian Ocean became apparent from the docking there of Chinese navy submarines and a warship last year.

That had drawn the ire of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is now hoping to build a closer relationship with the new Sri Lankan leader. Western nations, too, that had distanced themselves earlier, because of the pall of wartime abuses hanging over Mr Rajapaksa, might now see an opportunity to exert some influence. Mr Sirisena could, of course, gather all the dividends of foreign power rivalry that come his way and blow hot and cold. Investment graft and foreign influence featured at the hustings in Africa too. But once at the helm, new leaders were not impervious to Beijing's largesse. Mr Sirisena's own strategic vision ought to be guided by a clear sense of Sri Lanka's place in the region and the ties that can help to fulfil national aspirations.

Sri Lankans can take pride in the triumph of democracy and the smooth transition of power demonstrated. To ensure that is not squandered, a consensus must emerge on the political and economic participation of all in society.