By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Doesn’t anyone read public opinion polls anymore? Don’t they make news anymore? I’m not referring to opinion polls run or commissioned by the government – any government—or its affiliates, but opinion polls in reputed non-state publications, especially those on vital topics. Surely no topic could be more topical than the international moves being made on Sri Lanka, the pressures being brought to bear and the choices that may need making. It is not there isn’t much debate on this matter in the local media—indeed there is. What is visible is any concern over what public opinion might be in this regard and what is not available is any evidence of what the public, the citizenry at large, think on these issues.
If I may immediately contradict myself, that’s not strictly true. Somebody was concerned enough, and there is finally, some evidence from a credible source, of what public opinion is on the external pressures on Sri Lanka as well as the various local political responses to these pressures. I strongly urge all politicians, policy makers on and researchers of Sri Lankan affairs, DPLs, foreign journalists covering the country and local commentators on politics to study the empirical data, in a spirit of learning and with a little bit of humility, because anyone who claims to be overwhelmingly concerned about democracy, informed by democratic values, and motivated by the interests of the people, should pay some attention to what the people actual do say, think and feel on issues of the national interest.
The latest number of Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD) to reach me (belatedly), its December 2011 issue, has Kumar Sangakkara on the cover as the Sri Lankan of the Year, which is an apt pick indeed. The LMD has been a periodical of repute since its appearance in 1994 and is a prominent voice from within the country’s vibrant corporate sector. Regular commentators in its pages include Jehan Perera, hardly an ideologue of the ruling coalition. Therefore I take rather seriously its regular item Talking Point, Voice of the People, presented by the LMD Business Desk, and features this time, the LMD-TNS opinion poll on the issue of international pressure on war crimes, human rights etc. The survey is conducted by TNS Lanka, the local affiliate of TNS which bills itself as the world’s largest customised research agency and is part the WPP group which has offices in 106 countries. The research methodology was a random sample and face to face interviews of respondents between 18 and 55 years of age , with an equal gender divide and covering Colombo and the provinces ( or ‘outstations’ as it quaintly calls them) in equal proportions.
The questions are full-on and the results are dramatic. Are you in favour of the Government’s reaction to allegations of human rights abuses? 97% say YES. Do you feel that certain nations in the West are applying double standards in regard to alleged ‘war crimes’? 85% say YES. Does the Secretary General of the UN have the right to appoint a panel to report on the final stages of the war? 78% say NO. Has the Opposition adopted the right stance as far as Sri Lanka’s defence in the face of these allegations are concerned? 80% say NO. (p45)
Little wonder then that the LMD Business Desk reports that “a staggering 97% of people interviewed by TNS pollsters across the island say they are in favour of the Government’s response to allegations made by the UN panel and some Western nations”. (Ibid)
It goes on to disclose “that the West practices double standards is highlighted, and it is no surprise that 85% of the poll participants believe this is also the case in the present scenario. ‘The West very frequently publicises false statements’, ‘Western countries only act in their best interests’ and ‘some Western countries support terrorists’ are some of the opinions expressed during the nationwide survey.” (ibid)
Strikingly important as these results are the questions and answers that follow is even more significant to students and practitioners of politics. These pertain to the political behaviour and prospects of the Opposition, the preferred foreign policy perspective of the public and the commitment of the citizenry to democracy.
What then does the public think Sri Lanka should do, as a counter-hegemonic strategy? “Looking at the bigger picture, poll participants believe that Sri Lanka should seek the support of friendly nations such as China and Russia, who as permanent members of the UN Security Council have veto powers. They say it is also important to set a mechanism in place to counter such allegation s through the international media – with the use of online forums and so on. Reorganising the country’s foreign diplomatic service ‘to work efficiently and make strong representations against such allegations’ is also recommended by survey respondents.” (ibid)
This criticism or more accurately, defensive counter-criticism of the West is not a manifestation of congenital or culturally conditioned anti-Westernism, unlike in the case of the Southern chauvinist fringe. Almost 30% of those polled called for ‘building and strengthening ties with the Western countries’.
Fascinatingly, the poll results reveal not merely the secret or a secret of the popularity of the government, but of the unpopularity of the opposition.
“Criticism is also levelled at the opposition almost by a similar majority (80%) of respondents who are of the opinion that ‘the opposition is working towards gaining political advantage’ out of the present situation when the government has locked horns with the mighty West.” (p45)
Here lies the deadlock, because the unambiguous diagnosis, obvious prognosis and clear prescription for the Opposition are completely at variance with the stance, ideology, self-image and proclivities of the main opposition party under its current leadership. Bluntly put, the UNP has always been seen as pro-western and soft on sovereignty, with the significant exception of the Premadasa presidency. This perception is indelibly ingrained under Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe and those associated with him. This public perception is a fatal electoral affliction at times of heightened public sensitivity to issues of sovereignty and perceptions of Western bias—times such as these current ones.
Anti-government strategists are probably betting on the oil price shock and economic crisis to generate a meltdown of the administration’s patriotic support, while the Opposition and its existing leadership stand pat and occasionally stir the pot. However, the slightest awareness of comparative politics and contemporary history would show that economic hard times do not cause patriotism to evaporate, only to combine in unusual combinations, generating unorthodox displacements and choices, not all of them predictable or palatable.
The colossal indictment of the Opposition contained in the LMD-TNS opinion poll cannot be countered by ritualistic bows to race, religion and language (a la DB Wijetunga and IMRA Iriyagolla, the UNP’s ‘nationalists’), because that is not what it is about, going by the data—the figures of approval and disapproval far exceed any ethnic, religious or linguistic demographic. Contrary to both the pro-Western opposition and cosmopolitan intellectuals on the one hand and the Sinhala ultra-nationalists on the other, this is manifestly not about Sinhala –Buddhist nationalism or chauvinism; it is about Sri Lankan patriotism.
The figures reveal that this overwhelming and overarching patriotism is by no means part of an authoritarian still less totalitarian mindset. Those critics who contend that the Sinhalese are making today, the same trade-off that the North mistakenly made for thirty years, namely ‘the defence of ethno-national pride for democratic rights and freedoms’, ignore – incredibly—the fact that the Tamil people were under the totalitarian jackboot of the LTTE, unlike the South which had, as does the whole island now, a multiplicity of mass media, civic associations and political parties. Therefore any analogy is ridiculous. Moreover, the polls data shows that the mass of our citizens are unhappy and unwilling to make any trade-offs which affect democracy and identify the strengthening, deepening and widening precisely of democracy (internally), as the ultimate and abiding answer to the (external) threats to sovereignty.
“But if we are to close this chapter once and for all, Sri Lanka’s democracy must be strengthened; law and order must be restored…” A plurality, 51% of those polled recommend as the ultimate solution to the external challenge, that we “strengthen the country’s democracy and be more transparent in all activities”. (Ibid)
That is a clear indication of a domain in which the people wish to see reform, improvement, and change for the better. For our people then, democracy is the answer, and they will recoil from any attempt to resort to any other measures in defence of sovereignty.
The data of this valuable and credible exercise in public opinion polling shows that Sri Lanka’s people cherish national sovereignty and have a democratic vocation, i.e. they cherish both national and popular sovereignty. They stand firmly for an independent, sovereign democracy; a democracy that is not supine and which stands up to the West, but also a patriotism that is more democratic and transparent. Theirs is a democratic patriotism or a liberal nationalism of the centre. It is a vision of a country that is free from interference from without and is no less free within: that’s a good description of a sovereign, liberal or social democracy.