By Ruvan Weerasinghe –
As has been written by many in the past, Sri Lankans get all excited during the election period, and once they elect their representatives, look on helplessly until they get the next chance to vote. If there is ONE factor that has allowed the elected to do their own bidding without care for those who voted them in, it is this: that they are assured of a 5 year stay in parliament and then to a pension for life, so that they can forget about you!
Are we serious?
We need to change that this time. Many have waxed eloquent about ‘chasing away the whole lot’ from parliament using phrases such as ‘unuth ekai, munuth ekai’ in disgust at the way 3 or 4 families from the two main parties have ruled this country in its entire post-independence history, running the country down by cultivating a destructive partisan politics based on patronage. If we remain just armchair critics and never do anything about our lot, we’d be guilty of belonging to the same class as our politicians who rarely really mean what they say. However, there’s one thing these political parties have been successful at doing: getting the citizens all excited nearing an election period and forcing a false dilemma on them – as if they necessarily HAVE to select one of them (the ‘greens’ or the ‘blues’) – as the others are irrelevant. And sadly, we have largely been dancing to their tune.
How do they manage to do that? They campaign. For which they need massive funds. And which then breeds a bunch of hangers on who feed like parasites on the politicians. No one else really has any election campaign, except the two main parties, and to a much lesser extent the smaller parties. The stakes at a Presidential election are unbelievably enormous (despite the much less powerful position it is after 19th Amendment) and has been estimated to be anything up to Rs. 1 billion for a realistic chance to win! What a colossal waste of money, which returns to haunt us voters when those who funded it come back to claim their return-on-investment.
Doing something about it
So, how can we change that? In short: campaign ourselves! Crowdsourced campaigning. I can almost hear your scepticism – it’s impossible, and we don’t want to get down to that level anyway. But that’s what it’d take if we really mean business. If we’re serious about what we ‘wax eloquent about’, that what this country needs is indeed a complete change in its political culture, we should be willing to walk our talk to make it happen. We have all heard how much more effective word-of-mouth is in marketing, compared to high-spending ad campaigns. There’s nothing more effective than personal endorsement when it comes to authenticity and believability. Today, we find ourselves in a context of fake news and disinformation that is so rampant that it is hard to tell apart fact from fiction, promise from the possible. As such, personal credibility becomes a powerful tool in our hands to influence those around us.
This is where each of us comes in. We can certainly make a dent in the massive propaganda campaigns of the two big parties, by deciding to get into the act of personal campaigning for the election. We need to spend a little time to develop a strategy and a message. Our strategy must be a mix of online and social media use AND face to face persuasion. Our message must be clear and well-articulated.
How do we set about it?
For instance, my strategy would be to make sure I use the social media platforms I operate in to make a post or respond significantly to at least 3 times each day for the next 39 days. In addition, I will seek to persuade at least 3 people I interact with each day over the same period. In particular barbers, tuk tuk drivers, fellow commuters, hospital queues, office canteens, work interactions, neighbours and gym break chats are all active ground for even the most introverted of us to begin conversations around our message if we’re focused over this short period.
My message, which may be different from yours, would be to stay true to what many have been ‘threatening to do’ and vote for someone who can usher in an ‘alternate political culture’: NPM and NPPM are two such groups that have already clearly articulated their core values and policies that are consistent with such change. I am also a pragmatist however. Judging by how slow our population has been at moving towards such change, and the fact that they were badly let down by such a promise in 2015, the chances are that the two ‘big’ parties will still take the first two positions, though hopefully NOT 50% of the vote. For that reason, I would also educate those in my sphere of influence, on the importance and intricacies of the second preference by which the ‘greater evil’ among the two could be prevented from ruling us. It is crucial to convince those we seek to influence, that giving the 2nd preference to any other candidate than the two ‘front runners’ is meaningless, as it won’t be counted.
Devil in the detail
For effective communication we need to have multiple formats of our message so that we can use the appropriate form in the appropriate context: the long engagement version and an elevator pitch version for short interactions, for instance. The main purpose is to be deliberate in our message and not vague – which is why we would need some planning to develop a written down (and memorized?) version of what we’d say in each such situation.
My stand on the second preference may sound defeatist. It is not. If enough of our citizenry take this call seriously and get involved in personal campaigning, I do believe that we can make a serious dent in the campaigns of the two main parties. However, owing to the lack of time to get such a movement into full swing in the remaining time, it is also necessary to be realistic and have such a backup plan. In the end, there are at least two important goals of ensuring our alternate candidate gets a significant percentage of the first preference vote: (a) so that neither of the two front-runners get 50% (a crucial requirement for the second preference to be counted) and (b) to give ourselves a good indication of how and with whom to form alliances on time for the parliamentary election, so that we can get at least 25 statesmen and women into the next parliament. This way, we can change the culture of parliamentary debate and decision making, which in turn would lead to the beginning of the new political culture that we want to see in this country.
Finally, it is absolutely mandatory for all those groups that have come forward with the intention of changing our political culture to get their act together and decide to back a single candidate as the champion against the two parties that have repeatedly let us down. That is of course if they are serious about saving this country more than coming into power. Let this be a litmus test of your intentions – if you can’t compromise and collaborate in order to make a true change before the election, what chance do you have to work together after elections?
After reading this, we can either say ‘hey that’d be a great thing to do’ OR we can get down to business by drafting our message and planning our strategy THIS DAY, giving ourselves 5 weeks to do something significant for our country. If you do that, be sure to share your strategy and message with those in your social circles and ask them to do the same. Imagine the effect it would have if just a hundred of you reading this convince ten others to do it and do likewise – just four waves would take us to 1 million campaigners for changing Sri Lanka’s political culture!