By Mohamed Harees –
“In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” ~ Napoleon Bonaparte
Almost fifty years ago, we lived in a world of greater political apathy and yet greater trust in politics. Now comparatively, there is passion and distrust, as the events of the two decades demonstrated all too clearly. In today’s context, the primary game of politics in a democracy is one of vote winning. As a result, many politicians make this Faustian bargain; they sell their soul in order to prolong their political careers. In an era where the winner takes all, the cardinal rule in politics has become either lie or lose.
The former Commissioner of the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) in Ghana, Justice Emile Francis Short once said quite simply, “people who venture into politics should use their power to make decisions based on their understanding of the common good. Those decisions should serve the office holder’s constituency, that is those citizens who voted for him or her adding that decisions should not be made, nor should they appear to be made, based on the financial self-interest of the officeholder. In Africa, too many people go into politics not to serve the people but to benefit themselves, to benefit the party and party supporters. Any such decision undermines the status of citizens as sovereign as well as the trust they have in the government. You hardly have consensus between these two dominant parties but “the only time you would get consensus is when they introduce a policy that will benefit both Members of Parliament of the political divide”. Quite the Sri Lankan picture as well!
Politicians have been telling lies and practicing deception, to win elections for as long as there have been politicians and elections. There is no such thing as an outright political lie. Instead there’s distortion, exaggeration, misrepresentation, deception, half-truth and overstatement. The assumption is that the risk is worth it. It however reduces the quality of public debate and manipulates voters. Politicians raise and spend billions to convince us to trust them with the responsibility of governing us. Yes! the fevered competition for votes virtually compels them to lie to us. The forthcoming presidential election has about 35 candidates with 3-4 most prominent spending billions. Because lying inevitably undermines trust, including citizens’ trust in their leaders and in government generally, we have cause to worry about the increasing dishonesty of political campaigns. For leaders distrusted by their constituents cannot hope to unify them behind efforts to tackle the urgent problems afflicting our communities, and our nation. Political trickery galore and comics have started off with promises, fads while political chameleons and monkeys are seen to be changing ‘colours and trees’ to further their self-interest.
Another presidential election or a general election – is not going to resolve the deep political divides or the longstanding issues in in Sri Lanka today. At least not yet. This President to be elected will have less powers under the 19th Amendment and if he happens to be a crackpot like MS or an authoritarian like MR, the political issues many worsen. In an election, people may cast their vote, but they are also casting it away for the next 5-6 years until the next election. Isn’t it bizarre that voting, our highest civic duty, boils down to an individual action performed in the silence of the voting booth? Is this really the place where we turn individual gut feelings into shared priorities? Is it really where the common good and the long term are best served? Precise the reason the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed that elections alone were no guarantee of liberty: “The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of parliament: for, as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing”. Political deception will continue in a land where the people consider election as the only way of political engagement. Totally lack of good sense or judgement!
Elections are the fossil fuel of politics, which although decades ago, they gave democracy a huge boost, it now turns out they cause colossal problems of their own. If we don’t urgently reconsider the nature of our democratic fuel, a systemic crisis awaits. If we obstinately hold on to a notion of democracy that reduces its meaning to voting in elections, at a time of economic malaise, we will undermine the democratic process.
Probably the main reason for politicians to engage in deception and false promises may be how our party system works. Supporters are totally blind and act slavish to the drum beats of their political leaders and very likely not know what their vision is or what’s their ideology is. Both blues and greens which ruled this nation since Independence actually did not have a political ideology, or a long term vision for the country although they dabble in words and do not take it seriously when they issue election manifestos. They don’t have values they share and therefore how can they support a common goal?. Do people know why the politicians do what they do? Do they know their ideology?; therefore they blindly support the ones that gives them the most benefits individually, which is incredibly selfish. None of the major current parties do not have a proper ideology or a vision. What they have is a leader. And whatever that leader think is right, the party cadres think is right which qualifies them as slaves rather than colleagues on one mission. The politicians will always abuse the system as long as such a stupid electorate exists. Unscrupulous politicians make use of the hope that springs in voters’ breasts at times of elections and lure the voters with false promises. Sri Lanka’s elections – and for that matter elections in most democratic countries – are therefore won by false promises. In other words, promises make the difference at elections.
Promises are usually based on the rosiest of possible futures. It is unfortunately the common public perception that a great number of election promises are meant to be broken. Many even regard this as a severe issue that disaffects people from the entire political process, increasing apathy and lowering voter turnout. The constant stream of broken promises has annoyed many voters and now politicians have begun to adopt techniques to make their promises more believable. Fads such as Mahinda Chinthanaya, Yahapalanaya as well as trying to add credibility by setting a more specific time for when promises will be implemented, with politicians listing what they will do in their first week or first hundred days in office such as 100 day programme have become political comedies, but still the electorate fall for these traps at the next election. The candidates know this stupidity and continue to deceive the ‘dumb’ people. Abolition of executive presidency in Sri Lanka is another broken promise. Strategists assume voters have an almost infant-like response to lies, believing that if something isn’t true it won’t be repeated. So the most effective political lies are repeated again and again. Say something often enough and people will begin believing.
In developed countries too, broken promises are not rare. Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, in 1987, said that “by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty”. It never materialized . Pack of lies surrounding the Brexit campaign was another example. The Liberal Democrats‘ in UK also once pledged not to increase tuition fees, whereupon it formed a coalition with the Conservative Party and soon after voted for a threefold increase in tuition fees. President Barack Obama vowed repeatedly during the 2008 election to close the terrorist detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but the prison is still open.
Another cause for worry is , as has been made evident by legal experts, it would be impossible to make politicians legally accountable for their election promises, due to the fact that the separation of powers and Dicey’s first rule of law forbid it. The separation of powers has been a part of governmental and legal systems for hundreds of years because it is a remedy to counter the abuse of power by those who have it. If society is to maintain order, it must be adhered to under all circumstances. Our courts are congested enough as it is, without having thousands of people suing the government for broken promises. It is said that it would be detrimental to society to have an unelected and unrepresentative judicial system restricting the power of a democratically elected and representative government. So the political trickery goes on!
Democracy is not, by definition, government by the best, elected or not. It flourishes precisely by allowing a diversity of voices to be heard. It is all about having an equal say, an equal right to determine what political action is taken. In order to keep democracy alive, we will have to learn that democracy cannot be reduced to voting alone. Elections become dangerously outmoded tools if they are not enriched with more sensible forms of citizens’ participation. The bandwagon effect is a phenomenon whereby the rate of uptake of beliefs, ideas, fads and trends increases the more that they have already been adopted by others. As a principle, the ‘Bandwagon Effect’ was used from the 19th century in political campaigns to link candidates with the notion of having fun and to paint those who are not ‘on the bandwagon’ as missing out. In politics, the bandwagon effect might cause citizens to vote for the person who appears to have more popular support because they want to belong to the majority. This tendency of people to align their beliefs and behaviours with those of a group is also called a herd mentality.
It is a shame how the stupid electorate has been allowing the two major parties to go off the hook, by duping the electorate since Independence, using many attractive catchphrases /slogans and promises. If we do not learn lessons from history, and fail to hold our rulers to account and display civic activism even now, our present lot too will take our inaction as approval and continue their age old tricks. People boarded a popular bandwagon, being treated to a timely and apt political catchphrase Yahapalanaya and resultantly voted out the corrupt and racist MR Regime in two elections, despite his Churchillian styled feat in giving political leadership to defeat the barbaric Tigers few years ago. The Silent Revolution of 2015 was then considered a milepost of this bandwagon journey. But what happened is clearly visible to the voter going to elect the next President in November; but he appears to be once again following the herd mentality. Nepotism, cronyism, abuse of financial transactions and conducting government business as if it were a “family company” will continue if strong signals are not given to those asking for the vote that they will no longer be allowed to take the electorate along the garden path.
Further, for too long, politicians have used the racism and nationalism cards to divide the electorate along racial and religious lines for their petty gains. For too long corruption has been tolerated. For too long, Sri Lankan voters have moved along two party continuum. For long, they have opted for a personality based politics and moved away from policy based politics. Seven decades later, Sri Lanka is in the cesspits of history as a result of this self-centered political class of both sides of the divide. It is time for fresh thinking and explore other alternatives and a third force. The National People’s Power (NPP) is one party which has seriously addressed the imperative need for policy based politics guided and led by intellectuals rather than narrow minded politicos. Isn’t it therefore time opportune for a decisive and revolutionary thinking. Solutions cannot found by going along the same route which led Sri Lanka towards destruction.
Government must be held accountable to the principles of good governance and impunity should be condemned and eliminated. Rule of law should be upheld at all costs and those who appeal to racism should be rejected. Majoritarianism should not be the State policy. Policy based politics should be the guiding light for Sri Lanka’s future rulers. Good governance – addresses the allocation and management of resources to respond to collective problems; it is characterized by participation, “transparency, and accountability, rule of law, effectiveness and equity”. The implementation of the principles of good governance in a country would be futile unless and until the principles of this ideology cascades to all units of the economy. Moreover, the thinking of the people should change qualitatively. 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 those suitable and public activism to keep the rulers to account is therefore a must.
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. Are we ready to think and act afresh?