By Nimesh Samarasinghe –
I had the privilege of spending two weeks in Sri Lanka on holiday during July. Considering that a parliamentary election is looming, I took every opportunity to speak to ordinary people from different backgrounds both in and outside Colombo, so as to understand the realities of local politics at ground level. As ‘good governance’ had been a buzz word during the recent presidential election, I was particularly interested in understanding the correlation of this term with the election of honest candidates, as opposed to corrupt ones. While some people were able to make clear distinctions between good governance and corruption, others saw a fine line between the two.
The war against ‘corruption’ and the fight for ‘good governance’ were mantras of the UNP-led opposition coalition that supported the election of the presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena on 8th January 2015. It was a successful campaign that denied Mahinda Rajapaksa a third term in executive office. Maithripala Sirisena’s election campaign had highlighted the alleged corruption, lawlessness and nepotism levelled against the Rajapaksa administration, and it’s resultant failure to deliver the benefits of brisk economic growth to the majority of voters.
This parliamentary election campaign is now at its peak, and the usual ‘politicking’ by parties and candidates concerned will soon come to a closure. Appreciating that conditions are different when it comes to voter behavior during presidential and general elections, the focus of this article will be on voter behavior when electing honest or corrupt political parties and their candidates at the upcoming parliamentary election. My views are grounded in political, policy and social science research conducted in various parts of the world and of course some of my views on voter turnout, and the likely outcome of the forthcoming general election.
Information on corrupt politicians
There is good evidence indicating that a real or perceived lack of information by voters may reward corrupt politicians due to the inability to distinguish between clean and corrupt politicians. This association appears to stem both from highly informed voters’ greater knowledge and better understanding of incumbents’ involvement in corruption. During the recently concluded Sri Lankan presidential election, social media played an outstanding role in electing the current president. Social media informed voters about alleged corruption and nepotism within the Rajapaksa regime and emphasised the need for good governance and a change in the administration. Considering that Sri Lanka is moving towards a digital age at a fast pace, it was a smart move for the UNP-led coalition to use more of social media during their presidential election campaign, moving away from election posters and cutouts. It was an election where the power of social media was clearly demonstrated as a campaign tool in bringing down a government for the first time in Sri Lanka. It is not surprising that majority of those standing for parliamentary elections are attempting to utilise social media to its full potential in their fight for the preferential vote and to expose corrupt parties and candidates. However, in terms of informing the public about candidates’ wrongdoings, there exist limitations in terms of its reach to the villages in Sri Lanka. We see the traditional methods of communication and community participatory approaches at play to ensure reach of these messages to the grassroots. One could argue that today’s average voter in Sri Lanka is better informed about corrupt politicians and the parties they represent than ever before. However, is information alone on corruption adequate for the voter to make a decision on choosing a candidate or a party?
Goodies in exchange for votes
The next contention or the question that I would like to discuss is whether voters are prepared to elect corrupt politicians, even when they are informed about their wrong doings?
Research conducted in some Latin American countries suggests that voters may elect corrupt candidates despite being advised of their wrongdoings. Although the majority of voters would prefer to hold politicians accountable for corruption, they do not always engage in preventing this misbehaviour, especially when politicians are able to reward their voters with public goods, patronage jobs and material benefits that other political parties or candidates do not, or cannot guarantee. We have witnessed the offer of material goods in exchange for votes in Sri Lanka over the last few decades and this appears to be common in developing democracies.
Both the UNF and the UPFA are promising economic development, good governance and the prevention of corruption in their manifestos. The UPFA is offering the public immense benefits, some of which are unrealistic. For example, the UPFA has gone on record by promising a minimum salary of Rs 25,000 for public sector employees and a Rs 200,000 ‘marriage bonanza’ for couples ending up in matrimony. I will let the reader decide if they are realistic when considering the UPFA’s track record on public spending. Interestingly, some people whom I spoke to during my travels in Sri Lanka stated that they had happily accepted material goods from the Rajapakse strongmen during the last presidential campaign, but had voted for the opposition candidate. According to the literature on redistributive politics, politicians may benefit from targeting non-aligned or those not devoted to a party when offering ‘goods’ to individuals and groups in exchange for votes.
In terms of the forthcoming parliamentary election, the analysis of the final result will inform us if voters have rewarded corrupt politicians in exchange for goodies received. Voting for a corrupt party or a candidate is not limited to accessing information on corruption and the delivery of public goods in exchange for votes.
Corruption and ideology
Ideology is another important factor that can strongly predict voting for a corrupt candidate. I am referring to voters seeking to best match their personal ideological preferences with a political party and candidate contesting the election. I am confident that most of us can find at least one friend or a relative who is a die-hard or staunch UNP, SLFP or JVP supporter in spite of knowledge of corruption. According to research, ideological self-identification is one of the strongest and most consistent predictors of electing your preferred candidate or party. However, what are the consequences when the ideologically preferred party or candidate is corrupt?
There arises a situation where voters are confronted with a moral dilemma when they have to choose between honesty and ideology. Some research suggests that, in the context of having less choice for the voter on credible political parties, voters may support corrupt parties and their candidates when they mirror their ideological political preferences. Additionally, some voters may have strong loyalties to certain politicians or parties such that their vision is clouded and allows a form of ‘cognitive dissonance’ to arise- a psychological theory whereby conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours are held.
‘Nationalism’, as a political ideology cannot be ignored when analyzing voter behavior at the next election. Some writers argue that the former president’s government was the first to fully embrace Buddhist nationalist ideology. It’s appeal was to southern voters, as he was regarded as the leader who won the separatist war. In parallel, the creation of a fear- psychosis over any revival of the LTTE, where the country might be at risk again of separatism is propagated by the UPFA campaign in a manner that corruption could be ignored in the interest of the country and nationalism. Although, this is supposed to impress, a section of Sinhala Buddhist voters ignored this notion and voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last election.
Tolerating a corrupt party, rather than voting for an alternative party whose ideology is contrary to their own, would be difficult to the voter on 17th August. Conversely, the JVP has emerged as a strong third force despite the negative image suffered due to its association with violent activism in the early 1970s and late 1980s. The JVP is equally supportive of good governance, exposing and informing the public about corrupt politicians and their wrongdoings at an unprecedented scale. With the inclusion of JVP as a third force and a reasonable party alternative, we are yet to see if ‘ideology’ will play a more or less significant role in electing corrupt candidates at the next election.
Another area that requires exploration is voter preparedness to either switch parties or stay at home in the face of their ideologically preferred party being involved in a corruption scandal.
Perceptions and experiences of corruption erode voter confidence in public institutions and the political system. If voters perceive information about corruption as negative advertising, then such information has the potential to weaken voters’ confidence in their ability to influence good governance. This may lead voters to believe that voting will not benefit them and there is a strong possibility that voter turnout will decrease and erode partisan attachments.
The recent political circus where members of parliament switched from one party to another cannot be forgotten when analyzing ideological preferences and voter turnout. Prominent politicians such as Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Ven. Athuraliya Rathana, M.K.D.S Gunarawdena, Arjuna Ranatunga and several other ex-members of parliament and Pradeshiya Sabha members crossed over from the UPFA to the UNF. Some of them were staunch supporters of nationalism in Rajapaksa’s previous government. It was their prerogative to dissociate themselves from the alleged corrupt politicians who received nominations to contest the election from the UPFA. Even Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the past President and chairman of the SLFP seems to be supporting the UNF campaign. According to her, the forthcoming election is not about party politics, it is merely a matter of choosing good or bad politicians.
With a frequent amount of political cross overs, especially by a voter’s preferred candidate, there would appear to be a sheer amount of confusion and disillusion for the voter to deal with. Previous work suggests that perceptions and experiences of corruption undermines voters’ confidence in public institutions, erodes the legitimacy of the political system, reduces trust in politicians and lower voters’ confidence in their government’s ability. This may either send a strong signal by ‘abstention’ at the election or increase the so-called floating vote base.
In conclusion, corrupt politicians and parties will lose support at the next parliamentary election. Although this can be less than one would expect and more often than not with only limited consequences for remaining in office for some alleged corrupt politicians. The UPFA is contesting this election without unlimited state resources (such as state media and the ability to mobilise state institutions) to counteract negative campaigning against it. The prime minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe’s popularity is at an all-time high and although it may be premature to state, the UNP appears to have united since the January polls. There is disharmony among UPFA strongmen as they attempt to dissociate between clean and corrupt candidates within their own party. President Maithripala Sirisena also seems to covertly support the UNF.
With the announcement of election results on 18th August, the UNF is likely to win more seats in parliament than the UPFA. We are also likely to see some alleged corrupt politicians being rejected by the public and others elected into parliament with less preferential votes than the previous 2010 election. The JVP will also ring alarm bells, emerging as the third force.
Finally, it is well known that corruption is associated with less economic development, greater inequality, poor outcomes in the areas of health and environment, mistrust and a discontented population. Use your franchise wisely when electing your representatives to the 15th parliament of Sri Lanka.
*Nimesh Samarasinghe [PhDc (London), MSc (London), BSc (Hons) (London), DipHE (London)] has over 15 years of experience working in the British National Health Service in clinical, managerial and commissioning roles. He is currently working as a Consultant, assisting the State of Qatar to reform their health services. The author also has extensive experience in health and social care and public policy-making research.