By Neville Fernando –
Neville Fernando M.D.
Among the many perceptive observations on our society and culture made by one of the greatest scholar monks of the 20th century, the Venerable Kalukondayave Pannasekhara, was that the Sri Lankan voter didn’t know how to properly exercise his vote as a citizen of a democratic society. Universal suffrage was granted to Sri Lanka as early as 1931, and the Ven. Pannasekhara was commenting on voter behavior during the ensuing elections, up to about 1950. In his view, the reason for this misuse of the right to vote was the rise of the party system. It engendered hostility and aggressive behaviour on the part of the contending political parties.
This is a very understandable view. While certain formations that had some features of a political party were in existence in the early days of universal franchise, they were largely ethnically based, like the Sinhala Maha Sabha, and the Tamil Congress. In elections prior to the rise of political parties, the competitors were largely individual candidates rather than nominees of a political group. It is the general election of 1947 that we can consider the first election to be based on political parties, in which the left parties that had splintered from the LSSP (founded in 1935) formed a credible political opposition. And it is reasonable to say that voters in that election were more polarized than in any before.
The abuse of the right to vote that the Ven. Pannasekhara attributes to political parties has only continued to grow in variety and directions, well beyond the limits of party antagonisms. My attempt here is to make a list of the wrong reasons for which the large majority of our voters cast their votes. I do so in the hope that it will persuade this majority to cast their vote out of a conviction that the candidate whom they vote for stands for efficient and honest government. My list is a broad one that includes factors relevant to the exercise of the vote, and not narrowly confined to the act of voting:
1) Follow the leader: These voters base their decision on the their mentors and leaders. This pattern was well demonstrated in the mobilization and empowerment of the rural elites (sanga, veda, guru) in the 1956 election.
2) Optics: They are easily impressed by the biggest splash and show. Optics created by giant banners and so forth matter.
3) Momentum voting: Any candidate, irrespective of their credentials, who exhibits signs of winning, gets their support. In Sinhala this is vaasi pattata hoyya.
4) Lack of a good choice: All candidates presented are bad, so any choice is a bad choice, and voter can only vote for the least unacceptable, or for none at all.
5) Non-realization: Inability to grasp the fact they, the voters, are totally in charge of their destiny and that of the country.
6) Small bribes go a long way: we see that some politicians give certain ‘incentives’, meaning bribes, in the form of building materials, clothes etc. just prior to election time. Poor people are impressed by this tactic and they imagine that such benefits would continue.
7) Family history and tradition: Some voters think that their family always voted for such and such, and want to keep doing the same.
8) Loyalty to a political party: This a very powerful factor in voting decisions. The suitability of the candidate does not matter. There is much reluctance to changing this.
9) Gullible: Many voters believe in fantastic and grandiose promises (lies) given by the candidates, without ever intending to keep them. They continue being gullible, election after election.
10) Education level: Our literacy rate in supposed to be very high. Of course this is not equal to a proper education. There is no free and independent thinking and there is an inability to look beyond the surface.
For example, massive public projects like highways and ports are acclaimed as “development”, when in fact they were built on un-repayable loans, mortgaging the country for generations to come. The most recent of these white elephants is “the lotus bud”, touted “the tallest tower in Asia”. This is an absolutely useless construction except to constantly impress on the people’s psyche the political symbol of the Rajapaksa faction. It will take its place as the tallest eyesore in Asia. The country is almost 80 percent indebted. We are over Rs. 11,000,000,000,000 in debt.
Progress wise, we are at the bottom of other Asian countries. If the quality of our literacy is as high as its rate, we would not engage in such blatant stupidity, and keep voting for those, belonging to both major coalitions, that have plundered the country.
11) It is the way it is: The belief that the system in the country is what it has come to be. We are powerless to change it and we have to accept the status quo.
12) Ignore: We as a nation are very good at ignoring problems. People are complacent. We see mass pilfering of state assets, corruption, nepotisms and indifference to rule of law, and we are happy to ignore it all.
13) Meekness: There is a paucity of courage to stand up to wrong and immoral acts. We have no tradition of whistle blowing. Our people do not have the energy to get involved to voice their opinion (most are busy working hard to make a living). At the very least, they do not show their disapproval by bucking the trend and voting differently.
14) Powerless: Our people do not realize that they truly have the power to make and unmake governments. They are under the illusion that people of some other group or class have power and they do not.
15) Influence of the media. Most popular media sheepishly report the ‘massive’ plans, and diversionary fairy tales of the politicians especially by the myriads of so called ministers. They religiously report inconsequential and mundane ‘news’ e.g. ribbon cutting projects going nowhere, photo ops with clergy etc.
16) Fear: There is an unreported and unappreciated undercurrent of fear still in all walks of life. People are afraid of coming out and speaking against corruption and mismanagement; they want to lay low and not make any waves.
Fear of repercussions is widespread but under the surface. The idea of vengeance in the form of abduction (the white van syndrome), punishment and elimination is still a powerful factor in preventing proper exposure of wrongdoing by politicians and their cronies.
This also applies to media who are careful not to offend the powerful.
Note: I wish to thank H.L.Seneviratne for useful conversations regarding the historical background of the exercise of voting in Sri Lanka.