24 February, 2021

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The Politics Of Fear In Sri Lanka:  Allowing Demagogues To Manipulate The Electorate!

By Mohamed Harees –

Lukman Harees

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” – Edmund Burke

During a recent TV Quiz show, a Muslim girl named Shukra Munawwar from Galle won not only two million rupees, but the hearts of millions too. The popular show attracted much social media traction. Innumerable social media in Sinhala not only complimented her for her superb knowledge in history and her command of the Sinhala language, she was also admired for bringing hope in an otherwise gloomy political environment tarred by racism. This is only a token reflection of the level of goodwill and the thirst for peaceful co-existence usually prevalent at the grass root levels in the South. How did this frank aspiration to live in harmony as was seen for more than centuries, became submerged in a cesspit of mistrust and hatred, in Post-Independence Sri Lanka? Why did the usually tolerant people of Sri Lanka allow barbaric anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983 to happen? How did a well-orchestrated hate campaign against the Muslims start off after the end of the war in 2009, the tempo of which increased after the much condemned Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 and who stood to gain by the latter? The people who have the effrontery to rule us, those who vie for power, who call themselves our government, understand the a basic fact of human nature- fear of the ‘Other’. They exploit it, and they cultivate it. And use it to their advantage.

Political analysts say that the victory of the Rajapakses which was consolidated in August 2020, were said to be powered by four factors: First, big corrupt deals  under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance; second, the Easter bombings of 2019; third, the split within the opposition; and fourth and finally, the handling of the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. These events secured a super-majority for the Rajapaksa brothers, clearing the way for uninterrupted, decisive, and forceful majoritarian politics. The 20th Amendment further consolidated the way towards democratic dictatorship. 

During one year+ Rajapaksa Rule, they continued to militarize public life (latest ruse is a proposal to provide military training to over 18 olds), render the country as a debtor and tributary to China, entrench marginalization of minorities, intimidate activists, and abandon the transitional process in the aftermath of a vicious war that left more scars. The COVID-19 pandemic was eventually used as a pretext to expand a surveillance system to monitor and control the population, fulfilling the prime role of the Leviathan: offering protection in exchange for control. But protection is for the majority, while the minorities are unprotected unless they navigate within the prescriptive nationalist parameters of majoritarianism. The good image of Sri Lanka today thus stands polluted due to the scant disregard for human rights, as well as the rule of law and impunity crises besetting the nation. 

It is a serious indictment of the present quality of our political discourse that predominant sections of the majority community in Sri Lanka were so easily led to believe that the numerically smaller communities(minorities) pose an existential threat to their well-being and existence and are just guests who should fall in line with the majoritarian reality. And it is an indictment of the way our democracy is currently operating that the mainstream society were so easily convinced by a populist government that burial of Covid victims are medically unsafe, even after the most important evidence presented— leading medical experts and professional bodies vouching otherwise. And it is also a clear sign of a slavish electorate when the narrative of Muslims being a bogeyman in the eyes of the majority, mostly with the blessings of he ruling politicians gains traction within the society. Clearly, the current administration has misused fear to manipulate the political process. The important question is: How could our nation become so uncharacteristically vulnerable to such an effective use of fear to manipulate our politics? 

Nations succeed or fail and define their essential character by the way they challenge the unknown and cope with fear. And much depends on the quality of their leadership. If leaders exploit public fears to herd people in directions they might not otherwise choose, then fear itself can quickly become a self-perpetuating and freewheeling force that drains national will and weakens national character. Fear diverts attention from real threats deserving of healthy and appropriate fear and sowing confusion about the essential choices that every nation must constantly make about its future. Fear is a very strong tool that can blur humans’ logic and change their behaviour. 

Tribalism has been an inherent part of the human history. At a tribal level, people are more emotional and consequently less logical. People regress to tribalism when afraid. This human tendency is meat to the politicians who want to exploit fear, as Sri Lanka saw in Post –Easter period. Thus, politicians, sometimes with the media’s help, do their best to keep us separated, to keep the real or imaginary “others” just a “concept.” 

Demagogues are political leaders, who always use fear for intimidation of the subordinates or enemies, and shepherding the tribe by the leaders. Demagoguery is nothing new. It has been a problem for democracy for 25 centuries, at least since the populist Cleon persuaded his fellow Athenians to slaughter every man in the city of Mytilene as punishment for a failed revolt. Demagoguery emerged in Athens concurrently with the rise of democracy. And it is the use of persuasive speech and the dependence on an electorate willing to be persuaded that marks the primary tool of the demagogue. The local demagogues in recent history – the Rajapakses used the fear factor to regain power, through measured doses of racism and Islamophobia. 

Politicians and the media very often use fear to circumvent our logic. Fear divides people, which doesn’t help make them safe. The systematic exposure to fear and other arousal stimuli on television can be exploited by the clever public relations specialist, advertiser, or politician. Barry Glassner, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, argues that there are three techniques that together make up “fearmongering”: repetition, making the irregular seem regular, and misdirection. By using these narrative tools, anyone with a loud platform can ratchet up public anxieties and fears, distorting public discourse and reason. In November 2019, the Sri Lankan electorate slavishly fell into the trap that Muslim threat factor was a reality, with rogue Medias like Hiru, Derana and Diwaina writing the narrative around Muslim expansionism outpacing Sinhala population growth exponentially, showing Muslim terrorists in every corner and mosque, as well as around creating conspiracies around Muslim businesses and Dr. Shafis, using unethical tactics to sterilize Sinhala women. 

Basically, democracies breed demagogues. This has been true since the beginning. Democracy, provides a fecund environment for the reproduction of demagogues. As Shakespeare’s Cassius noted, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves . . .”As such, in a democratic environment demagogues simply cannot be avoided. They are one of the natural products of a form of government that depends on elections. The most one can rationally hope for is that a majority of the (participating) electorate will identify the demagogue AND reject his or her message. But history, again, teaches us that such a reaction is unlikely. Thus, one year on, sanity appear to prevail; but judging by the ‘short memory’ past records of the people, it is highly unlikely that they will hold the politicians and Media people who lied to them, to account. 

Democracy suffers from an inescapable, built-in flaw. Each citizen gets an equal, but tiny, share of political power. An individual voter’s ballot makes a difference only if she breaks a tie. But the probability she’ll break a tie, in most cases, is vanishingly small. Thus, most voters have no incentive to be well-informed about politics, or to correct their misinformed opinions. They have no incentive to think rationally about politics or to process information in a reasonable way. They have every incentive to indulge their biases and prejudices. Thus, when demagogues manage to get hold of our fear circuitry, people often regress to illogical, tribal and aggressive human animals, becoming weapons themselves – weapons that politicians use for their own agenda. 

There are only two kinds of politics. There are only the politics of fear and the politics of trust. One says ‘you are encircled by monstrous dangers. Give us power over your freedom so we may protect you’. The other says ‘the world is a baffling and hazardous place, but it can be shaped to the will of men’. Unfortunately, in an atmosphere of constant fear, the public is more likely to discard reason and turn to leaders who demonstrate dogmatic faith in ideological viewpoints. These new demagogues don’t actually offer greater security from danger, but their simplistic and frequently vitriolic beliefs and statements can provide comfort to a fearful society and a slavish electorate. Unfortunately, the rise of these leaders serves only to exacerbate the decline of reason and further jeopardize our democracy.

Democratic backsliding in Sri Lanka is no longer a matter of speculative concern. Democracy showed an alarming downward trend ever since the executive Presidency began. Human rights abuses, rule of law and impunity crises have become a reality, as vouched by many well-regarded global human rights watchdogs and local monitoring organizations as well. All show an erosion of Sri Lankan democracy particularly since end of war in 2009. Electing a demagogue is always dangerous, but it does not condemn a country to democratic breakdown. Strong institutions can constrain corrupt or autocratic-minded leaders. That is precisely what the Constitution was designed to do. 

But constitutions by themselves aren’t enough to protect democracy. Even the most brilliantly designed constitutions don’t function automatically. Rather, they must be reinforced by strong, unwritten democratic norms and public activism.The point is that politicians may exploit the letter of the Constitution in ways that eviscerate its spirit: pardoning of culprits and criminals through Presidential pardon, appointing of Court judges, partisan impeachment, government shutdowns, declaring national emergencies to circumvent the Parliament. All these actions follow the written letter of the law to subvert its spirit. Legal scholar Mark Tushnet calls such behaviour “constitutional hardball.” If we examine any failing or failed democracy, we will find an abundance of constitutional hardballs. Constitutional hardballs are not hard to find ever since executive presidency came into being in Sri Lanka too. 

Our guardrails protecting our democracy have become unmoored. The driving force behind democratic norm erosion is polarization. when societies are highly polarized, we become more willing to tolerate undemocratic behaviour by our own side. What we are experiencing today is not traditional liberal-conservative polarization. People do not fear and loathe one another over poor economic mismanagement, debt crisis, law and order breakdown or impunity. Contemporary partisan divisions run deeper than that: they are about racial and cultural identity. Sri Lankans have sorted themselves into parties that represent radically different communities, social identities, and visions of what the nation is and should be. What makes our polarization so dangerous, however, is its asymmetry– the ruling party  claiming to represent the sole voice of the predominant Sinhala population and the slavish electorate trying to justify any and every action whether reasonable or not, including the alienation of the numerically smaller communities. Government’s fear of not allowing Tamils to remember their dead and Muslims to bury their Covid dead being justified in the conscience of the mainstream Sinhala community is one such example. Our system of checks and balances has also failed to prevent presidential abuse; in a context of extreme polarization

Democratic dysfunction doesn’t merely hinder government performance; it can also undermine public confidence in democracy. When governments consistently fail to respond to citizens’ most pressing problems, and when the government itself fail to act as everyone’ government, citizens lose faith in the system. Extremist forces then emerge. There is good evidence that such an erosion of confidence is occurring in Sri Lanka today.  The earlier remedial action is taken, better for Sri Lanka to be optimistic about its future. Public activism is a must, as parties only change course when they feel the public heat.

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Latest comments

  • 4
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    Wish all Muslims in SL are like Ms. Shukra.

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    Lukman Harees
    “Why did the usually tolerant people of Sri Lanka allow barbaric anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983 to happen?”
    Brownnosing? Otherwise, did you like Rip Van Winkle sleep for forty years ? Not heard of the KMP Rajaratne-led mob attacks on Galleface Satyagrahis in 1956, mass murder of Tamils in Gal Oya in 1956, anti-Tamil pogroms in 1958 and 1977 and burning the Jaffna Public library in June 1981?

  • 1
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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.

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  • 1
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    Eagle ‘ding dong’ Eye, thanks for the brilliant comment and keeping it short.

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