By Laksiri Fernando –
“Political culture is the manifestation, in aggregate, of psychological and subjective dimensions of politics.” – Pitch Pongswat
A democratic election is a process in which people are involved closely interacting with the contesting candidates, their political parties/groups, party leaders and other campaigners. The culminating act is voting. One may argue that the process is more the other way round, the people mostly being mere spectators of the ‘gimmicks,’ before the election day, and the real actors being the candidates, parties, leaders and their supporters (or henchmen).
Whatever the case, it is a process through which the existing political culture or lack of it of the people, the country and more importantly political actors (leaders, candidates and parties) become revealed or exposed.
What is Political Culture?
Political culture is generally understood as the political dimension or layer of the culture in society. For an opening quotation, why should we always go by ‘Western’ scholars or big names (irrespective of attacking the West!) and I have selected a definition by a scholar from Thailand, Pitch Pongswat (Chulalongkorn University) above. That is sufficient for the moment.
As he says, political culture is the ‘psychological and subjective dimension of politics.’ This means political values, attitudes and norms. It is this psychology and subjective sphere of the political actors (leaders, candidates and parties) that is particularly revealed during the ongoing local government election campaigns. ‘Psychology’ in the definition also could mean their ‘madness.’
Even before going through the campaign trails, it should be noted that there is a considerable gap and contradiction between the formally accepted ‘political system’ and the ‘political culture’ in our society. This is why many scholars and writers (Javid Yusuf, Siri Gamage, Rajan Hoole, Lukman Harees, Sujata Gamage, Helasingha Bandara etc.) have criticised and called upon the leaders and the people to change the existing political culture. In other words, although our political system, by and large is democratic, unfortunately our political culture is not. This is the contradiction that should be addressed and changed. How this could be done needs special attention at a future occasion.
Such a vast contradiction however cannot be seen between the political system and the political culture in, for example, a country like Australia. The simple reason is that the society is also, by and large, democratic apart from the political system.
Perhaps there is something more to add to Pongswat’s definition. Political culture also means ‘political behaviour.’ Political behaviour can be changed or curtailed to an extent through laws and their implementation. Whatever the ‘behaviour and culture’ of political leaders, parties and candidates, for example, it has now become the task of an independent commission to conduct a ‘free and fair election.’ The Election Commission should be commended for its determination and actions in this respect. The Police, the Human Rights Commission and other agencies also have a role to play. Therefore, one can also view the present situation with some cautious optimism.
Opportunity to Study Political Culture
Information technology gives immense opportunity to political science students to precisely study the political culture today. That was not available during our time. It is not only the reports by journalists in newspapers that are available, but video material more precisely giving crowed behaviour at meetings, and more importantly, speeches and emotional outbursts by candidates and political party leaders.
Election demonstrations in the past that often led to political violence have gone ‘out of action’ thanks to the Election Commission and the Police. Still there are incidents and events, or rather actions, that could be characterized as electoral violence, but those hardly go unreported, even if they escape the journalists’ camera. If we take violence in the verbal sphere, the political speeches and meetings are still full of these behaviour.
The journalists and their newspapers play a major role in reporting the material relevant to the study of political culture, in an unbiased or a biased manner. Editorials, particularly of newspapers like ‘The Island’ do a great service often exposing the contradictions and exaggerations whether it be the President, the PM, or the ex-Presidents.
There are several layers and dimensions in studying the political culture related to elections. The election results could be the final substance, compared and corroborated with material of pre-poll dimension. Apart from candidates, political parties/groups, party leaders and their printed propaganda material, the voters, the opinion leaders and interest groups are the most important.
In Sri Lanka, there are no systematic opinion polls or studies conducted in gauging the trends in the electoral processes which are relevant to political culture. However, there are important material and data produced by various election monitoring organizations in respect of electoral violence, violations of election laws and ethics of ‘free and fair’ elections which are immensely valuable. Surveys could be conducted, with questionnaires (field, postal or online), but the students need resources or opportunities to do so.
Perhaps the media organizations and others could get hold of university students (political science, sociology, statistics) in conducting such surveys and studies in the future. This is a suggestion. What I can recollect in this regard is my first effort in 1970 take the political science students at the Vidyodaya University to Mahiyanganaya (including Dambana) for such a study. Wherever he is now, one student Gallage, was wittily prominent during this field visit! Subsequently I was also familiar with Prof. Siri Hettige’s many efforts in such surveys/studies at the University of Colombo. I make these personal notes as possible encouragement to young academics and students.
This article by no means is an effort of comprehensive scientific or research nature but an attempt, from a distance now, to draw attention to some aspects of the present political culture as revealed by the political campaigns conducted by the main political parties, political leaders and their candidates, particularly in the South.
Would Women Representatives Make a Difference?
What is going to take place on 10 February 2018 is an election to 341 local government institutions choosing by ballot of 8,293 members, 25 percent or over 1,000 being mandatorily women. This is potentially a pathbreaking change, although much attention is not given to this fact in political campaigns or commentaries. At present, women participation in local government is just 2 percent. Whether the increased mandatory women participation is going to change the political culture, at least at the local level, after the election is yet to be seen.
However, so far the election campaigns have been dominated almost exclusive by men. There are reports that some women candidates have already been intimidated by their male counterparts and others. Totally reported cases so far exceeds 34. A prominent incident was at Wellawaya where a women candidate was physically assaulted and became hospitalized. Although there are already some exceptionally talented women leaders at local levels, only prominent mayoral woman candidate is Rosy Senanayake in Colombo.
There are possibilities that women who get elected on 10 February could be trained and encouraged to take leadership roles by the existing national women’s organizations whatever the political party they come from. It is assumed that women are less prone to corruption and abuse of power. This is an area where some political cultural changes could be expected after elections. Although women obtained equal, thus universal franchise in 1931, this is the first time that women are going to break into politics, so far a male domain. Among 15.8 million voters at the election, majority are also women.
Local or National?
Local government elections are meant to be primarily on local issues, at least up to 80 percent. That is how the people’s grievances and needs at grassroots levels can be debated, thrashed out and development policies worked out. Out of 341 local councils, 276 are Pradeshiya Sabhas (divisional councils) in rural areas. They have nothing much to do with Colombo politics.
However, the present local government elections have been turned pathetically into a ‘national election’ by all parties. The opposition SLPP wanted it as a referendum on the government from the beginning. Although the two governing parties, the UNP and the SLFP, are contesting separately, the leaders have followed suit the opposition agenda and all present and past national policies and actions are debated. There are of course several national issues such as the Bond Scam that needs open and public debate. The proper place however is Parliament and not the local government elections. Although they can be highlighted as omissions and commissions, the priority should have been given to local issues and work plans.
The above predicament shows how the political-leader mindset is tragically centralized. This is a reflection of the existing political culture particularly at the leadership level quite inimical to the democratization of the country and its institutions. What goes along with the centralized mindset is authority and hierarchy. Whatever they say about devolution or decentralization, all wanted to control the local government institutions from Colombo. It is reported that two Ministers from the two governing parties (Lakshman Kiriella and Faizer Mustapha) have competitively claimed that they control the purse of the local government and therefore, the people should vote for their parties. What is demonstrated is ‘power-politics’ at the expense of people’s needs and welfare.
When compared to past local elections, the neglect of local issues is considerable this time. One reason is the holding of all local elections on the same day, on mistaken premises. This may be convenient and cost-effective to the centre, but extremely costly in terms of democracy and good governance. An obvious consequence would be the low turnout at elections, signifying people’s disappointment, disgust and apathy.
Emotional Mass Mobilizations?
In a proper democracy, what should be admired and encouraged are rational decisions by the voters weighing different policy options, parties and candidates. The reformed electoral system and the recreation of the ward system had given much hope in the right direction. Nevertheless, the way the political campaigns are conducted has completely betrayed and negated these reformed objectives. Who have become prominent at election campaigns are the Presidents (present and past), the Prime Minister and the Ministers, past and present. None of them actually contest any of the local councils.
I have been voting for the Blacktown City Council (New South Wales, Australia) at the last two elections in 2016 and 2012. None of the national leaders, Commonwealth or State, were campaigning at the elections. The candidates were presenting their personal credentials, apart from the local party policies to the voters mainly through mail and leaflet distribution. The electoral system is similar to the present system in Sri Lanka with wards and proportional allocations.
The debated issues were related to local matters of council rates, garbage collection, housing, local roads, bus services, pre-school and age-care facilities, protection of a clean environment, and efficiency and service delivery by different administrations (Labor or Liberal). This council by no means is a small enclave; bigger than my hometown Municipal Council Moratuwa in Sri Lanka. With over 350 thousand population and over 100 thousand dwellings, this is a multicultural city with new migrants, and as the name suggests (Blacktown) with a significant indigenous community. These were the concerns at local elections, and not the ‘fame or prominence’ of this or that ‘national’ leader.
There are protest rallies or demonstrations conducted in Australia on specific issues (trade union, environmental, racial etc.) and some occasionally turning into violence. However, there are no such rallies or mass mobilizations during elections on the understanding by all major political parties or independents that the elections should give room for the voters to take rational decisions without mobilizing them on emotional grounds. This is what I have observed even in Japan by living there during local elections in Kyoto in 2006.
This is a political cultural difference perhaps between a mature democracy and a new one struggling to come to grips with a suitable political cultural setting for its fledgling democracy. Most disturbing is the advocacy of such mobilizations (i.e. patriotic populism!) on many pretexts. These are on the premises that either the voters are ‘fools’ or they should follow the leaders blindly as ‘subjects.’ These assumptions defy the democratic principle of equality between ‘candidates and voters’ or ‘leaders and party supporters.’ This sense of equality is important for a democratic political culture.
There are so many other aspects of the existing political culture revealed during the ongoing political campaigns. I have always been amazed by the gratuitous or submissive way the so-called leaders of political parties are introduced to the stage by the announcers. This is particularly evident in rallies of major political parties (SLFP, UNP, SLPP) and, I must say, not in a party like the JVP for its credit.
Even the speakers usually go in a rigmarole manner, gratifying each other for a long spell, as if there is a ‘political caste system’ in our political culture. Some are ‘superior’ and some are ‘inferior.’ Most of the speeches are obviously for the amusement of the crowds, usually insulting the opponents, and it is with difficulty that one could gather any political substance, let alone public policy. Only progress which can be observed today is the relegated use of ‘filthy’ language!