Colombo Telegraph

Polls Are (Not Always) For Dogs!

By Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

I arrived in Canada sometime after John George Diefenbaker had been reduced to a raucous front-bench opposition (Conservative party) voice after his famous and totally unexpected ascendance as Prime Minister (PM) to majority government followed by a bout of back-stabbing by the Tories that would have put the Rome of the Caesars to shame.

However, “Dief the Chief,” continued to earn the grudging respect of many Canadians despite his curmudgeonly conduct and his ultimate passing was mourned by even those who believed him to be the most paranoid PM that Canada had ever had and that was in a country that had in that same pantheon a very long-serving P. M. in the person of MacKenzie King who was claimed to be able to communicate with his deceased mother through a medium!

When the polling prior to Dief’s unexpected victory showed him trailing the Liberals, he made the comment that I’ve paraphrased as the title of this piece, the original reading, a most dismissive, “Polls are for dogs,” alluding to the propensity of the male of the canine species to raise its leg when passing any stationery object, punning on the words “polls” and “poles.”

Recent experience in the democratic world, particularly in Great Britain in the matter of the Scottish Referendum and in their most recent general election, proved polls to be anything but infallible, bringing back, to my memory at least, the grizzled veteran of Canadian politics in the nineteen-fifties, who, incidentally, visited post-independence Sri Lanka (“Ceylon” as it was then) and was most disturbed by its anti-imperialist politics and its lack of affection for the King (or Queen) of the Commonwealth that had only recently emerged out of the dismembered Empire!

All of the preceding seeks to preface the recent polling in Sri Lanka which took place in a climate of fear and lack of trust in any nosy “stranger” seeking access to one’s political leanings. That (very justified) fear, something all-pervading since Mahinda Rajapaksa imposed himself on a nation only too ready to accept a xenophobic culture bordering on, if not entering, the “master race” ideology of that Teutonic demagogue earlier in the 20th century.

I had my doubts about anyone contacted by pollsters by the usual means – personal, telephonic or electronic – answering questions that, in their minds at least, could have dangerous repercussions if the ”wrong side” ended up in the seats of power and with access to the respondent’s identity. It was difficult enough to get a direct answer when one was trying to “identify the vote” on behalf of a political party that was not seen as a threat of any kind, in a country where electoral democracy was taken for granted. There were, literally, manuals written about how one was to identify supporters on the phone and on the doorstep and then ensure that they went to the polls on E-Day. To expect the same methodology to work in a nation where a climate of political fear prevailed seemed like barking at the moon!

Given the tradition of threat and thuggery in our political process that had certainly grown in leaps and bounds in the “Mahinda Years,” it would seem that it would only be the suicidal that would indicate honestly who’d they be voting for because the parties in opposition to the Rajapaksa Hegemony didn’t exactly have clean hands in that respect, either, making the task of anyone trying to obtain public opinion by any civilized means, difficult in the extreme.

However, it seems the pollsters who claimed that their feeling of the public pulse indicated the defeat of an United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance led by the man recently defeated in a Presidential election by no less than one of his erstwhile subordinates and acolytes was no one-time fluke and the people were not going to let that victory be turned back. However, there was a school of thought that expecting Ranil Wickremesinghe to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa was akin to expecting lightning to strike twice, particularly when any such bolt was expected to originate with a man who had been pilloried by all and sundry as the original “loser.”

Even though it didn’t require one to believe in the predictions of the astrologers on whose guidance this country was run by a President with absolute faith and belief in the occult, to reject the sweeping dismissal of Ranil Wickremesinghe, he had, no matter how unwillingly, worn the mantle of the most unsuccessful politician in this country’s history since independence. Let me, at this point, go on record as, probably, a minority of one in my own circle who respected Ranil’s intelligence and political savvy even though he certainly didn’t come close to earning my respect in other matters associated with being a politician and leading this nation. In fact, I have found difficulty in shedding my prejudices in the matter of his father’s political conduct, that of his political mentor, J. R. (“Yankee Dick”) Jayewardene and the history of his mother’s family, the Wijewardene’s, in Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history. There were no overly humanistic, principled or progressive traits in those who would, of necessity, have influenced Ranil.

I have not seen extensive descriptions of the methodologies that the various polling entities employed, either, but I have to assume that they did, in fact, employ methods that are accepted in that field as appropriate.

Insofar, as their predictions of the overall results of the general election – that the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) would secure the most seats, without an absolute majority – they were proven right and that fact would suggest that they did their homework. After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating thereof, as that old saying has it!

In a “good news,” “bad news” scenario, though, what should be most disturbing to those who were hopeful of a sea change in Sri Lankan politics issuing from this election is the national mood that led to Mahinda Rajapaksa running on, essentially, alien turf in Kurunegala, securing by far the largest single vote tally of any candidate in the country, his son topping the poll in Hambantota and, perhaps, most disturbing, the fact that the coterie of his most vociferous supporters, with (justified) reputations for violence upto to capital crimes and theft from the public coffers, topping the polls in their constituencies, winning handsomely wherever they ran. THAT does not auger well for our future as a country and suggests a public that is so cynical that it will KNOWINGLY put these people in positions of authority and power because they see this as the “realpolitik.” The reason for that cynicism and acceptance of that reality is that some of the leading lights of the UNP have continued to confirm my belief that they have and are shielding these unmentionables in payment of past political debts and in anticipation of needing their patronage if/when they make a comeback. I will never tire of beating the drum I have for a while on this subject: it is ASBSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL that due process of law be applied to these individuals for their transgressions. The “insurance buyers,” in the upper echelon of this government must NOT be permitted to impede due process of law and the general public MUST ensure that those who’ve committed heinous financial and personal crimes are brought to book and, of necessity, those protecting them from within the government are exposed and KICKED OUT.

This is not a matter of seeking vengeance, justified or otherwise, but of ensuring a return to civility and the observance of the law, both essential for a civilized existence.

The fact that the UNFGG has its share of unprincipled politicians cannot be gainsaid, though they certainly can’t hold a candle to the coalition that preceded it in that regard! At least, not at this point of time! However, that does not afford every thinking member of our society the excuse of looking the other way and/or rationalizing another slide into decadence and mayhem.

The immediate and primary task of every right-thinking person not caught up in the nitty-gritty of day-to-day Sri Lankan politics, not just those writing for publication or active in public discourse, is to hold the feet of the new bunch to the fire, as some of us have tried to do in the short time they’ve been in power. They must not be given a free ride simply because they cannot not match the worst excesses of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in the matter of violence and corruption or a murderous combination thereof. If they are not forced to tread the straight and narrow path of honesty and integrity by the general public, that public will have no one but itself to blame for what will follow: conduct that will make the Rajapaksa family’s rule look like a Sunday school picnic!

Our task as thinking Sri Lankans has only begun and we cannot afford to be wanting in its performance. Dharisha Bastians, a journalist for whose brilliant skills I have the very highest regard, once refused to publish me because I was “too preachy.” If I, again, come across as such I make no apology for it because I believe there is no question of being “too preachy” in matters of such unparalleled importance to the future of our country!

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