29 June, 2022


16 Reasons Why Most Sri Lankans Vote The Way They Do

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. 

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Latest comments

  • 5

    when universal suffrage was granted there was a need for it
    now the situ is different
    a lot of what you said is true
    sri lankan voters are literate but not intelligent voting with their hearts and not with their heads
    they have a tendency to forget the past very quickly
    the time has come when there should be an educational level for voters
    it wont solve the problem but will improve it

  • 6

    The uneducated Village folk cast their vote by saying “Ane Paw”. “its a SIN”,they kept Bandaranayakes in power for 2 decades and made this country ungovernable.

    • 1

      We have come a long way baby( courtesy Virginia Slims cigarettes). Aney Paw is not the name of the game. ‘Dennang Wade’ is more the attitude.
      The reality is, the Possible, Probable Candidates are chosen by the Party, whose Leader has a strangle hold, and decides unilaterally.
      We now have to decide from this lot of persons, unimpressive, politically inept, lacking political acumen. We don’t need Super Intelligence, just morally good and honest people to lead ( not rule) the nation with a sense of honesty justice and equality.
      I cannot see any on the horizon.

  • 5

    Neville, credit to the Venerable who had foresight to see the stupidity of the Lankan voter way back in 1950. From then they have now regressed to retards. To the above 16 reasons , we can add racist mind set, immorality, resentments, revenge, PSEUDO patriotism/nationalism, apathy,religious bigotry —-etc——etc, which has brought the country to such a pathetic state, where the choices we have for this election are either a Murderer or a Pimp ?????

    • 0

      Thank you for suggesting many other valid reasons and the impetus to voting the way they do. Racism and the fear of being overrun by minorities is a powerful incentive, which have been proven winners worldwide.
      Of course the politicians know to hype up this fact to their great advantage.

  • 7

    Almost a comprehensive list of the reasons that have kept Sri Lanka where it is. If I may add just one,
    the majority have a vassal mindset.The average voter has no idea of what governance is.

  • 4

    The list is impressive but what other choices do SL voters have other than mostly disappointments as the long standing experience? Also, are these reasons any different from anywhere else in the democratic world?

    Can this list be any guide to a political campaign or to plan any development strategy in order to make at least 80% of the voters happy after taking over the Gvt? My understanding is that it is not.

    The way to understand how voters make up their mind must lie in the inner psychic that affect “trust” in general. Since humans are evolved to trust members of a closed knit group such as the family, kinship -ethnic group, neighbors etc, building trust plays a key role in decision making to vote. From that basis, I think the voters can be divided into four major groups based on their expectations.
    1. Investors & bureaucrats who can adapt to any winning party. They usually are not much interested in elections except for personal bondage with politicians. Quality of politicians (Crimes & corruption) is not a matter of big concern to them.
    2. Voters with intellectual trends. They usually tend to vote weighing list of accomplishment of their wish-list. For example, civil activists are still content with defeating MaRa/GoRa autocracy & therefore, they would never vote for them again. However, they might consider candidates who is much more honest & trustworthy. Purity & education of politicians is a primary concern for them.
    3. Voters who depend on politicians to get things done. The items in the wish list may be not very big (small Gvt gob, a transfer, a promotion, paving a road, intervening with police. etc.,) but for them, they are very critical. A majority in this group is strictly party bound. Most of the rural & low-class urban voters belong to this category.

    • 2

      As with the first group, this group also pay very little attention to the quality of politicians. They will be content as long as their expectations are fulfilled. However, this is a slowly dwindling group. Educated second generation will move into the second category. Depending on the career success, a smaller number can move even to first category.
      4. Minority voters.

      Out 16 voting characters of Neville, 3 & 4 of my categories may posses a large number of them. The challenge for any election campaign is to tailor their candidates & the manifesto to suit the prevailing expectations of theses voting groups. The fear factor is the biggest for the minorities and for second group as well.

  • 8


    16 Reasons Why Most Sri Lankans Vote The Way They Do

    *** With all due respect most Sri Lankans do not vote on Bread & Butter issues. They only vote on one issue and that is who can kill more Tamils. Sadly it is the Race Card which is the vote winner and no one plays it better thn Gotha & MR.

  • 7

    Dear Nevelli,
    You are right that the Srilankan voters are using their votes for wrong reasons. The problem is not the people alone it is our educational system, religious system and political system are corrupted and it is in the hands of few wealthy powerful people. The judicial system is completely fraud. The religious books tell us what is good and what is bad but our religious leaders teach us differently. Srilankan voters will never change for many centuries .

    • 2

      We are Pandering to a set of Power Hungry Egoists!
      Let us Start a Movement to boycott Elections or Cast Ineligible Votes! Every One must Join, otherwise it will not Work!

  • 2

    In my opinion there are no 16 or 50 reasons for the voting preferences, instead it is only racial against the Tamils. This has been going for the last 70 or so years and it will go on for another 50 years until there is a miraculous change in the mindset of buddhist-sinhala-govi politicians. The miraculous change will not happen unless there is a real patriotic autocrat like the former Singaporean prime minister to lead this change. Now the racial politicians have got another waepon, the muslim extremism, not terrorism as how they they would like to tell us.

    • 2

      velu Rasiah:-
      Don’t forget that Lee Kwan Yu was Chinese, and they Understand Discipline!

      • 3

        How could we expect discipline from politicians who are street thugs with white clothing. The voters vote for them due to intimidations and threats which are well received by security forces who are onlookers.

    • 1

      Putha Velu,
      Racism is inherent in Sri Lankan’s politics. Minority bashing. BUT Minorities don’t clique together no? We have leaders who are constantly moving the goal post. How to overcome?
      Don’t vote racist politicos. Tell them to go to hell. Stay at home. No point.

      • 1

        I strongly agree with you, the Tamil politicians are only there to look after their interests in Colombo and India, they don’t give any darn thing to Tamil rights. They talk about these rights only during elections and the gullible Tamil voters believe them. Minorities don’t clique together because it is divide and rule policies taken up by majority politicians with ministries and perks.

  • 1

    The people think they are subjects not citizens. The rulers think they are kings not presidents.

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