By Lionel Bopage –
This is not unique to Sri Lanka; it is a common occurrence across the globe. It occurs not only during election times, but whenever those holding the reins of power wish to retain their dominance by hook or crook.
Let us look at the USA and the UK, which are said to be the most “open” societies of the “free” world who have impressive respective histories of democracy!
In 2016, Donald Trump’s approval ratings were very high. 77 percent of Republicans thought he was honest. In the US presidential election campaign, one candidate’s campaign statements were accurate 75 percent of the time, according to reviews, while those of the other main candidate was found to be false 70 percent of the time. Yet, the US voters elected Trump. Britain recently elected in a landslide, Boris Johnson who unlawfully shut down parliament to escape scrutiny. He was found to tell blatant lies whenever it suited him. How could political manipulators in the US and the UK lie through their teeth and still hold their grip over the people.
Considering this sorry situation, what could we expect in countries like Sri Lanka, where the power was passed on without the throne to their minions. Minions who still follow their rulebooks, mores and repressive methods. If we look at the voters in Sri Lanka from a telescopic viewpoint, those people who were supporters of a main political party have not really voted against their favourite party and preferred candidate throughout most of the country’s election history. There are two main blocs of people who vote despite the lies their leaders have uttered. Their dependents mostly remain true to the commitments their parents had previously made. Those who become disillusioned comprise the floating bloc, varying in size depending on the strength of the social wave wishing for change and the first-time voters.
In 1948, the UNP led by Mr D.S. Senanayake pledged an environment where people could live in a free, prosperous and a united land. However, by 1952 the economic conditions deteriorated with the UNP regime led by Mr Dudley Senanayake hiking food prices that pushed the country towards a general strike. The promised ‘united’ land was broken by the disenfranchisement of Malaiyaha workers. In 1956, the MEP generated a social wave down south, based on a pledge to establish Sinhala Buddhist privilege. Though the main opposition was reduced only to a few seats, they garnered a sizeable bloc vote.
Since 1956 the MEP and SLFP coalitions led by the Bandaranaikes implemented the policy of Sinhala Only – Official Language Act, expanding tertiary education with no holistic planning for generating employment and discriminately offering privilege to the majority. Their policies and actions paved the way to the southern youth uprising in 1971 and contributed to sprouting the northern Tamil militant trend. The first woman Prime Minister of the world closed the economy down of imports and imposed food barriers island wide. Yet luxury items to satisfy the needs of the ruling elite and their accomplices were imported.
In 1977, the UNP generated another social wave based on a pledge to create a ‘dharmista’ (righteous) society, free of carnage and disparity that had previously prevailed. The UNP led by Mr JR Jayewardene opened up the economy in one go demolishing local industries and agriculture, intensified discrimination against minority communities and violently repressed society rather than making it ‘dharmista’. These disastrous and discriminatory policies led to the 1989 uprising in the south and the two and a half decade long ethnic war that was brought to an end in 2009.
All the pledges the SLFP led coalitions had made since 1994, to eradicate bribery and corruption by bringing to justice those involved and to give a human face to open economy became fairy tales. Their pledges to unplug the economy from the World Bank and the IMF, pull the country out of the debt trap, abolish the executive presidency death trap, a Jayewardene creation, and resolve the national question by devolving power to the peripheries, were also fairy tales.
The start of this century witnessed the passionately brewing religious polarisation of society. In 2005, the SLFP led PA coalitions pledged to abolish the executive presidency with a caretaker presidency and a parliament moulded on the Westminster model and address the national question with a 13+ arrangement provided in the constitution. However, confrontation escalated by the LTTE and the government led to the end of Tamil militancy with the LTTE being crushed militarily yet leaving behind all the causes that led to that uprising to fester on. Defeating the LTTE and getting rid of its terror activities made the government extremely popular in the south.
In 2010, the UPFA generated another wave based on this military victory. Yet, instead of abolishing the executive presidency, adopting a constitution moulded on the Westminster model and addressing the national question with a 13+ arrangement, the regime brought the 18th amendment to make the incumbent executive presidency a familial hereditary presidency. Besides, allegations of continued terror campaigns in the south with white vans, kidnappings, disappearances, killings and abolition of freedoms etc. and massive bribery and corruption reaped through huge infrastructure projects did not make the regime’s popularity long-lasting.
In 2015, the UNP and SLFP led coalition pledged to abolish the 18th amendment and the executive presidency by adopting a new constitution that would also address issues of devolution and discrimination and bring all those alleged to be involved in criminal activities to justice. They repealed the 18th amendment by adopting the 19th amendment, adopted the Right To Information Act, established independent commissions and the Missing Persons Office, but the process of adopting a new constitution and bringing alleged criminal offenders to justice was kept at snail’s pace due to disinterest and lack of commitment shown by SLFP and the UNP leaderships.
The SLFP leader himself did not want to see abolition of executive presidency. He wished to become executive president for a second term and allegedly collaborated with the Rajapaksas and the newly established SLPP. Friction and conflict between the SLFP and the UNP led to the collapse of the whole journey towards establishing rule of law and good governance. The biggest bombshell, the bond scam was the final nail in their coffin.
Pledges of providing free of charge rice and dry rations in the fifties, rice even from the moon in the sixties, eight pounds of grain in the seventies never materialised. Much favoured nationalism and sovereignty aired in the open was being diluted with land, industries, development processes and other resources handed over to multi-nationals, foreign companies and governments. Sri Lanka fell from grace from being a country admired by Singapore to a country where leaders continually pledged to make the country into a Singapore, while working against it.
The pledges for re-establishing national pride by rebuilding and refurbishing tanks and anicuts to make the land’s food and water resources secure have fallen by the wayside with the country importing many crops and food items. Farmers continue to suffer from lack of land, water, fertilizer, markets and proper prices for their commodities. We still hear politicians pledging to provide a glass of milk to every school kid, a meal for every child and a bag of nutrition to every family.
In Sri Lanka, meals to drinks, ‘sil redhi’ to mamoties, tv sets to sewing machines etc. are used as vote ‘incentives’. Donating gifts, hosting parties and providing meals to voters were previously considered bribery. Now, pork-barrelling has become the main form of incentivising communities. Legislation that makes such acts illegal are sidelined.
In general, the world over, voters could be seen to have become insensitive to falsehoods. Is it because, they are not aware that their leaders utter lies to capture political power? Or do they do not care anymore? I read somewhere that this has something to do with the distinction between the conventional understanding of “honesty” and the notion of “authenticity”. Honesty mainly relies on factual accuracy, while authenticity on aligning the public and private images of a politician.
Referring to a false claim a politician has made, voters mostly respond to corrections. Nevertheless, they simply leave it there and disregards it. They may realize a specific claim is false, but that does not make them doubt any other claims the politician has made. Voters would remain committed to voting the same party or the candidate over and over again, no matter what, thus tolerating being lied to. Does that mean voters have given up on truth and honesty in electing their representatives? Exposing the lies they utter and revealing facts to clarify reality do not seem to have mattered.
Such exposure has not reduced the continuing appeal for the likes of Trump, Johnson, Duterte, Bolsonaro or any other manipulative authoritarian leaders. People are easily misled because they have hope, do not challenge their confirmation bias, or fail to do their research. From the US to Sri Lanka, independent studies show that top media outlets frequently portray imprecise information as facts. Some of those outlets are nothing but fronts for partisan propaganda. We ourselves become gullible when people we believe to be intelligent regularly post items from propaganda sites characterizing them as facts. They never check their authenticity because those items concur with their confirmation biases.
Politics have always raised parties and candidates who would mislead voters to jump the queue. Thus, the threat the spread of misinformation poses cannot be underestimated. In general, people group together with those they concur with, making themselves increasingly opinionated and hateful. In addition, people quick to assume they would be lied to by the opposition, but slow to assume that people with whom they concur would lie. That is not a healthy tendency.
The unwillingness to come to terms with facts that do not agree with the views someone hold has become an obsession. By being sarcastic and pessimist about what are being told, we let those who mislead us to go scot free. Rather, we should be probing what they tell us and hold them to account. There is also an uncomfortable truth we ourselves have to face. When we worry about people being misled, do we ever question the fundamentals that we ourselves believe in could be wrong? So, we ourselves need to become more self-aware.
When voters feel disempowered, discriminated against and excluded by the system, they would tend to accept and be misled by the lies politicians utter. To disempower such manipulators, and to make lying unacceptable require voters regaining trust in the political system, which is lacking almost everywhere. When voters deem a political system to be legitimate and fair, they will reject politicians who lie, and they would resent being lied to.
So, the key to meaningful change involves pursuing politics that reduce the appeal for populist crowd pleasers and create incentives for politicians to become more honest. Though there is no quick and easy recipe for this process, a better way to begin would be to vote for those candidates the voters themselves have found to be honest with an unblemished record free of crime and corruption. Holding those elected to account for their pledges and deeds even after the elections would pave the way for removing the grounds on which politicians would be ready to hoodwink voters. Then voters would not be naive enough to be hoodwinked by the politicians!