By Mohamed Harees –
‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable’ ~George Orwell
That election was arguably not just the most dynamic, tough and competitive in Sri Lanka’s turbulent history, but was also a decisive election which marked the resurgence of ethno-nationalism and identity politics producing fresh tensions and fault lines, along ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ continuum, thanks to the power hungry political vultures. Thus, on 16th November 2019, a gullible electorate with a slavish inclination to the Rajapaksas unfortunately fell for the biggest political deception of all time which secured a secured a historic win for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A carefully programmed set of lies and deception based on a platform of national security — in addition to misplaced patriotism — cunningly exploiting anti-Muslim hatred prevailing at that time in the minds of many (particularly Sinhala Buddhists) in the majority helped him to ensure landslide victory. Today, the deceived nation is nursing its wounds in regret, two years later, and the question arises, has the nation finally learnt its bitter lesson and will it say ‘Never again’?
Sinhala supremacists finally knew that in Post Easter period, they can use the Rajapaksas to achieve their majoritarian dream of a Sinhala State Utopia. For them, the nation that ‘the Easter attacks’ simply wouldn’t have happened on ‘Rajapakse watch’ became a good selling point. On the other hand, the Rajapaksas, also knew that, they can use Sinhala supremacists as shock-troops in their offensive against democracy and to grab power once again. The symbiotic reality was that the Rajapaksa ruling elite is only Sinhala supremacist, to the extent Sinhala supremacism serves their purpose of keeping them for more years in unbridled power. Patriotism for them is a means to an end, just to build their familial state. The Rajapaksas may or may not believe in the racist ravings of the Supremacist/ extreme hate groups; but they certainly knew how to use the resultant hysteria for their benefit, to strengthen their Sinhala base, to justify the ends- however unjustifiable they may be. They cared nought for a possibility that Sri Lanka may end up being the Asian Serbia as a result of their devious strategies.
The whole nation suffers as a result, with the risk of the country once dubbed as the Granary of the East and Pearl of the Indian Ocean being declared bankrupt nation and racist too . The sad truth is that the Sri Lankan electorate appear to be unconcerned about the deceptions of their political class and continue to vote in those politically corrupt and unethical, despite the country dipping to an international pariah status.
Political deception and lying is nothing unique to Sri Lanka. Lying as a political tool is as old as politics itself. The utility of lying on a grand scale was first demonstrated almost a century ago by leaders such as Stalin and Hitler who coined the term “big lie” in 1925 and rose to power on the lie that Jews were responsible for Germany’s defeat in World War I. For the German and Russian dictators, lying was not merely a habit or a convenient way of sanding down unwanted facts but an essential tool of government.
In the ‘Prince’ Machiavelli famously claimed that princes should use ‘force and fraud’ to achieve their political objectives, which suggested political lies are justified Political lies have led to wars, famines, genocides, and countless other atrocities around the world, but politicians never cease to tell lies. Politicians are now lying with impunity.
Lying proved a very successful strategy for political causes and individual candidates in the U.K. and U.S. elections in 2016. In a famous UK TV political show ‘Question Time’, “Why,” a woman in the audience asked the panel of politicians and commentators, “do you lie all the time? Wouldn’t it be better if you just told us the truth? . You can’t trust any of them.” “They’re all the same.” “They’re all in it for themselves.” “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, or if you vote at all, it doesn’t make any difference.” “I don’t believe a word they say.” Britain in 2019 elected a PM who told blatant falsehoods whenever it suited him. Boris Johnson still casually uses strategic lies to cruise himself and his Tory government through crises. Strategic lies -used by the ‘Leave camp’ during the Brexit campaign and played masterfully by Boris during the 2019 election campaign – are those deliberate lies which a politician tells with the purpose of shifting the news agenda onto his or her preferred territory. The classic strategic lie was the slogan painted on the side of the Leave campaign’s bus during the Brexit referendum that claimed that the UK sent £350 million a week to the EU. In 2016, US voters chose the latter-Donald Trump, who has made more than 13,000 false or misleading claims since assuming office. Both Boris and Trump were elected convincingly; sadly however the British public as well as Trump’s supporters were unconcerned by the continuous lies and deceptions of their Heads of State.
How is this possible? How can lying demagogues find traction in societies with proud histories of democracy and empiricism? Are people insensitive to falsehoods? Do they not know whether things are true or false? Do people no longer care about truth. Voters may therefore understand perfectly well that a politician is lying, and they may discount falsehoods when they are pointed out. But the same voters seemingly tolerate being lied to without holding it against their favoured candidate. Politicians lie because it is often the most expedient route to achieving their ends. Presuming politicians will lie and using this presumption as the point of departure for debate — rather than the topic of debate itself — normalizes the practice to a worrisome extent.
It’s thus a truism that politicians lie. Even politicians themselves half-acknowledge this fact. As a result, there’s a deep-seated and growing sense of apathy when it comes to politics. When 2016 was declared the dawn of post-truth, no one batted an eyelid. So pervasive is this sense of resignation that a UK 2014 petition to make lying in the House of Commons an offence was widely regarded as a joke, even by the petition’s founder. This fatalism is understandable but dangerously self-defeating. It convinces us that our elected representatives will always spout falsehoods whether we like it or not. It encourages us not to act, which is a curious attitude given that all of us would like our politicians to be more truthful. So, what to do?”. Politicians have a personality that allows them to be evasive, to live with lies and keep a straight face. Not all people can do that. That is why many people are not willing to serve in a political role. It is disturbing that more people aren’t incensed when politicians evade questions and exaggerate the truth. Even more irritating is the fact that many people give politicians a pass to lie. Some people are incapable of independent thought, and so they will accept what the majority accept even if that if it is based on lies.
This is clearly a reality in the Sri Lankan political landscape. The nation particularly saw in November 2019 how Rajapaksas convinced a large swath of the public to believe their lies and had an outsized impact in the shaping of public opinion. Clearly, current checks on politicians’ behaviour leave a lot to be desired. It’s not surprising that Diyawanna Oya is swimming in falsehoods when the rules governing honest conduct are so weak and patchy. There are many in the legislature with dubious track records- murderers, drug dealers, underworld dealers etc. Many politicians are narcissists and their arrogance and sense of self-importance lead them to believe that they can do what they want. If they have to lie to get what they want, so be it. The political culture considers it perfectly acceptable to massage facts to fit the desired narrative. There is little or no consequences for politicians who lie, and we have often witnessed politicians who claim they were misquoted even when the evidence suggests otherwise and they get away with it.
It is important to identify why current mechanisms of preventing political deception don’t work well. One reason is blind slavish attitude of the supporters. Even when they are caught lying, their supporters will continue to stand by them and continue to vote them in; so, there is little incentive for them to be completely truthful. Because many people don’t want to hear the bitter truth, politicians tell voters what they want to hear. It is a win-win for both sides. The people hear what they want to hear, and the politicians keep voters on their side. There is a realisation on the part of the politicians that they need not watch what they say, or how they say it, because the people have not made them accountable. They are under no obligation to tell the truth, because their lies provide entertainment for a populace that has forgotten what facts look like. Given the crumbling trust in traditional media and public vulnerability to lies on social media, it is not surprising that politicians on all sides try to manipulate voters into believing lies. After all, the incentive for politicians is to get elected, not tell the truth. To be elected, politicians need to convey the appearance of trustworthiness.
Until there are serious consequences for lying, it is unlikely that anything will change. Lying is a crime in many situations: in our tax returns, in court, in a police investigation. Not in the case of politicians. Parliamentary privilege has an importance place in our democracy, but it isn’t a valid argument against honesty laws. The right to speak freely and frankly is not the right to lie. Would a law prohibiting the President, MPs and politicians from lying be an infringement of their basic rights? Hardly – The philosopher Karl Popper considered this issue and argued that imposing limitations on the behaviour of politicians actually serves to ‘protect freedom rather than endanger it.’ Unfortunately, since politicians are the ones that make the laws, there is little hope that they will pass anything to hold themselves to account.
Some suggestions for Sri Lanka from other jurisdictions may prove useful. The first step would be to make it a criminal offence for a politician to make a public pronouncement which, at the time it was made, the politician knew or believed to be untrue. Such a law could result in fines, imprisonment and disqualification for politicians who lie. Introducing such a measure may seem draconian, but our democracy is at a very dangerous crossroads. Unscrupulous politicians, their advisers and others are using dark arts in a way that makes the activities of Marcos and Suharto look benevolent.
Another step would be to “give teeth” to the Election Commission to prosecute, punish, ban and curtail individuals and parties who persist in demonstrably provable dishonesty. A third measure should make social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter more personally liable for allowing political lies to be disseminated on their platforms. Fourthly, immunise the public against lies by teaching them to spot them – this is a long term, but necessary, education project. But on the overall context, the law has the potential to rule out political lies, but research has shown that it is only when people feel disenfranchised and excluded from a political system that they accept lies from a politician who claims to be a champion of the “people” against the “establishment” or “elite”.
Thus, it ultimately falls upon the people to keep themselves well informed, inform others and advocate for change. If the dishonesty of politics bothers people as much as they say it does, then they should direct that displeasure at politicians themselves. If the complaints are loud enough, and if enough people join in, any politician who wishes to stay in power will have to listen and act. It’s happened before, with politicians rejecting pay rises and imposing term limits on themselves. It could happen again if politicians are ready to face the truth.
Political deception cannot be allowed to take root. Ultimately, we need leaders who will lead. We need leaders who have the moral fibre to police themselves and others, and who are able to fashion solutions for social and economic problems that can create fertile ground for demagogues. Lies don’t die with each passing news cycle. They are like poisoned fruit littering the landscape. During the recent past, we all saw the ideals and spirit of Democracy trampled and attacked. Without question, the outrageous lies and deceptions actions we see being dished out were triggered by people who were willing to weaponize falsehoods and deceit. It is up to all of us to stand up to those who would place lives and democracy at risk. We still have time, but the clock is ticking.
In Sri Lanka, ‘stupidity’ of the people at elections has created dictators, narcissists, crackpots and corrupts in the past. Electorate should decide who will rule them rather than allowing the politicians to take them along the garden path as they have done in the past. In the context of high political polarization and the deterioration of trust in the political system, continuing people apathy will prove suicidal to the future. Mature thinking of the electorate to elect suitable representatives and public activism to advocate change in laws and keep the rulers to account are therefore a must. Are we ready to think and act afresh?