By Siri Gamage –
One of the intriguing topics in our discussions about politics and governance is the manner that voters relate to politicians and vice versa. To the Western educated person, voters are rational human beings who make decisions logically after weighing the pros and cons of each politician, statements made and his/her party platform. Yet the story is not so simple. Firstly, voters come from diverse backgrounds with varying capabilities for independent and critical thinking, evaluation of competing positions and the benefits to the self and society in choosing one or another politician or a party. Secondly, voter thinking and behaviour can be influenced by parties and individual politicians or their supporters using various media – including social media – and through personal networks. Thirdly, local issues and challenges can influence the decision-making e.g. poverty, poor infrastructure, poor education and employment opportunities, discrimination, marginalisation and neglect. Finally, prevailing views in one’s immediate family, community, networks, and society can also make an impact on individual perceptions and thinking.
The manner voters relate to the local politicians can be diverse as well. Some are closer than others and some benefit from the relationships they have more than others. Those who are affiliated to the party organisation in a given locality e.g. village, town or electorate, have closer links to the politician of the area by virtue of the party work. This is a given. Then there are opportunities for some to get closer to the politicians by virtue of the work they do in government-central, provincial, local. This operates in two ways: 1) some such persons are political appointees. Thus, they have an obligation to support the politician at the elections though this is not guaranteed. 2) there are others who have to implement the policies and programs of the government or simply work as functionaries of the government bureaucracy. Within government departments also there are those at the top of the hierarchy and those at the middle and lower levels. Yet there are those who work in special projects funded by foreign sources. There are regular staff and those on probationary or casual basis. The casuals are looking to get permanent jobs so they need the support of the politician more than the rest to get a permanent job. The relationships people develop in such work places can come handy in further dealings with politicians depending on the type and nature of the relationship and how close they are? If the politicians see a value in the relationship for his/her own prospects in getting re-elected or in implementing specific programs in provinces or urban areas this can lead to more closer relations between the two for instrumental purposes.
A third way that the voters and politicians establish relations is through the family networks. Some are close family members and others are extended family members. As Sri Lanka has a political culture of appointing family members to various roles in departments and ministries, family members can get special access to the powerful politicians that others cannot have. Such access guarantees not only access for access purposes but material benefits also to the family member. This includes the ability to use official vehicles, telephone and other facilities, foreign travel, involvement in various businesses including in government and a share of commanding power on behalf of the politician. Such relations can lead to favouritism in government appointments and granting of tenders, licenses as well. Leasing, purchase or acquisition of state land by other means is another contentious area.
A fourth way is through school and university relations or networks. Going to the same school, university or law college makes the voter and the politician close pals. Such experiences create lifelong relations where one is dependent on the other. Mutual affection and loyalty can be a given. When the politician is elected and assume ministerial responsibilities, there are examples when classmates get appointed to head various government departments or other semi-autonomous institutions e.g. national Institute of Education or Youth Ministry. This happens even in a system where there is periodic change of governments.
A fifth way that politicians and voters come into contact is through various organisations such as trade unions, farmer organisations. Major parties have affiliated trade unions. Their leaders in particular have close links to the party leaders. They even speak in election rallies on the same stage. Longer a person holds official roles in a trade union affiliated with a party, the closer he/she gets to the politician. The relations in this sphere is focused on collective bargaining for employees in various occupations for better working conditions. In some cases, such negotiations drag on for years if not for decades. Success or failure, such activity brings the voter and politician closer to each other.
A sixth way is through official roles and functions in the parliament, executive government, President’s and PM’s office, and Provincial government offices where the elected politicians come face to face with officials and support staff for both the politician and the official/functionary. Links established and acquaintances can be enduring to the extent of developing into social and family relations as sell. Such interactions can be collegial or master-servant style depending on the personality of the politician. When it comes to the lower levels of government bureaucracy, it is certainly the latter.
A seventh venue where interactions between the voter and politician take place is religious establishments such as Buddhist and Hindu temples, Mosques and Churches. They take place in two ways: 1) personal, meaning if the politician is a Buddhist he/she visits his/her temple with family connections for worship, seeking the blessings and making donations. Same happens with others with affiliations to Hindu, Christian and Islamic venues. Bonds established this way can be instrumental in the politician’s political enterprise. 2) politician visiting religious venues other than the one with his/her own personal affiliation during the campaign and between elections as they recognise that they can play a critical role in determining the voter behaviour (I witnessed a motorcade carrying the present PM to Gatambe viharaya from Kandy after he and wife visited Dalada Maligava during the short period when then President Maithripala Sirisena appointed him as the PM. It was a short visit but the aura of the motorcade with police, security guards and supporters following in a long line of cars was a significant display of power and personality. Onlookers had gathered on both sides of the Peradeniya road. I was waiting at the Gatambe viharaya for a while and then decided to go to Kandy by bus when I witnessed the motorcade travelling towards Gatambe. Mothers with children had gathered at the temple to witness the PM visiting their temple. They were mothers who normally bring children to the pre-school at Gatambe viharaya on weekends or worshippers. The chief monk from a close by temple who is known to the PM also had come there to meet the PM and his wife. Such visits create important culture and political capital though conducted for symbolic purposes).
The close nexus between political rituals and religious rituals is an important aspect to examine. Both fields are full of ritualistic behaviour and symbolism. Both follow the preacher-audience model to get their messages across. Belief in mythical powers of the target personalities is also a factor. Often in the discourses, the past is invoked to justify present action. Promises of securing the collective future – secular or sacred – are broadcast to the audience. Many voter or faithfuls tend to believe in such promises or utterances by the leaders in respective venues. The title ‘protector of the country and religion’ is thus an important title ascribed to a politician at the surface level-though the reality can be quite the opposite. Even when the lived reality goes against such promises made in the past, many voters tend to give the politicians another chance especially if they come from the established parties with a pedigree. Party affiliation (formal or informal) has become a person’s or family’s identification method at the grassroots level. Some family members go several generations with the same party and colour. While the world in and outside the country have changed over the decades, these families do not change their parties. We can call this the hardcore element of party membership. It is taken as an honour than anything else.
An eighth avenue is diasporic relations. Meaning those Sri Lankans living in other countries have organic relations with the politicians in terms of the above-mentioned avenues. This is applicable to both established parties as well as the emerging parties. As many thousands of Sri Lankans have moved to other countries to do all kinds of jobs or engage in higher education, this has provided fertile ground for extending party political work overseas. Through such relations there is an ongoing exchange of information about how the systems of governance work in other countries. Lessons are learned but the problem is in implementation. We remember the manner Mr. Nagananda Kodithuwakku organised networks in the diaspora for his campaign before the last elections.
Those who are outside such arenas/spheres, in essence the majority, hold the key to winning and losing at the elections. Being not close, they know the politician at a distance and often in a symbolic way only. For example, their familiarity with the politician is through venues such as temples, political meetings, other public venues where the politician comes to inaugurate etc. In a society where the people are used to ritualistic behaviour where religious and other cultural symbols play a significant role, the rituals associated with the behaviour of politicians can also make considerable influence in shaping their attitudes and behaviour. For example, the way the politician projects power can be influential here. The way he/she arrives in a place, the guards accompanying, nature of the car, whether the flag is displayed, homage paid by those around, personal appearance and oratory can all contribute to the image projected externally. Some wear rings of various sorts. Others wear a set of Pirit nool (chanted threads). Some arrive by helicopter for meetings/gatherings. All these factors combine to give ‘a magical meaning’ and ‘Image’ to the politician (Visma Karma look). Given how the average voter’s mind function, combined with power to command those around, such magical presentation of the image of the politician can persuade the voter to be swayed one way or another. When several such powerful politicians – especially males – are teamed up together as a family or in a given party, it makes them invincible in the minds of the voter. Male power is still a powerful factor in a patriarchal society like Sri Lanka. Gender equality has not entered the political sphere as we would like to. This is why when some powerful politicians travel through provinces, people like to touch them or their vehicle at least to show their affection or get close to the magical personality/personalities. Mythical character ascribed or projected comes closer to being sacred as well. The mixture of sacred and profane is what we witness in the mainstream politics.
There are other factors impacting on the voter sentiment and behaviour. They include gender, caste, socio-economic status, rural and urban residence, and more. Speaking of gender difference, one can stipulate that the way women perceive and interact with powerful politicians can be quite different from the way men do. Traditionally women are believed to be homemakers whereas men are supposed to be working outside and earning an income. But this has changed quite a lot due to education, mass media, employment in the public and private sector, and migratory experience. However, due to the fact that many women migrate out or decide to keep silent, no serious structural change has taken place in the political arena to provide more rights to women.
One question to ask is whether the electoral process for choosing a certain number of politicians for the parliament or a single individual for the executive Presidency empowers or disempowers the voter? Answer to this question depends on which group of voters we are talking about? In general, once a certain number of politicians are elected by the voters, the distance between elected politicians and voter becomes even larger not only in terms of the power held but also social status, wealth and prestige. The system of governance allows for such privileges for the elected politicians. Consequently, the access the voter has is extremely limited. Though it should be the other way, the existing hierarchies in society get further augmented.
In sociology we distinguish between formal and informal organisations. Under the formal comes organisations such as the state/government, judiciary, prisons, universities, parliament, Presidential office, Ministerial offices, hospitals etc. Under the informal comes institutions such as marriage and kinship, family, community, and other networks established by people for their living. There are norms, values, customs, and expectations applicable to the informal organisations but the difference is formal organisations generally function according to a set of rules established by those in authority. In a democratic society, this is the parliament. We expect the formal organisations to function according to the established rules. However, the story in countries such as Sri Lanka is far more complex as the difference between personal and formal is diluted to a greater extent in the way formal organisations operate. We need to keep in mind that in formal organisations also there can be norms, values, expectations and informal ways of behaviour.
The importance of this distinction between the formal vs informal organisations when we look at the relationship between the voter and the politician is that we cannot take the rules and laws as the benchmark in judging what happens in the formal organisations without taking the informal organisational dimension into account. Secondly, when the emerging political parties and groups are looking for ways to influence voter behaviour against the backdrop of major parties, they need to look at the voter profile not as a monolithic or single entity but as a diversified one as explained in this article. Unless they approach the subject from a diversified manner, they are bound to fail in their efforts. Furthermore, they need to understand that those who are placed in a given role in formal organisations with the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle – often with the blessings of the politicians – may feel secure in the existing system of governance by one or the other coalitions. Their ears and eyes may be open to the messages coming from parties like the JVP and Frontline Socialist Party but when it comes to voting at the elections they may think twice before they vote for such parties due to the uncertainty about the future.
Those voters outside the formal organisations, particularly those with no close affiliations or access to the politician may be attracted to the trappings of power, symbolism, small material benefits plus promises of a better life rather than the criticisms, discourses and analysis advanced by minor parties. They may be entertaining to some extent but the manner such voters make their decision is surrounded by mystery more than proper understanding. It is here that we need better surveys and focus group discussions to understand what factors motivate the voter at the election time? One thing I can say is that for this group of voters the distance from the politician seems to be an influential factor than closeness as it provides them with a logic clouded by mysticism, magic], and secrecy, extending even to divinity. They may lack the tools to grasp the actual nature of political leadership in the absence of an ability to make educated guesses or deep reading of political platforms and utterances.
Thus, a combination of personal, professional, political, cultural, economic and local factors is at play when it comes to the relationship between the voter and the politician. It is not only what the politicians say and do that determine the voter behaviour. What matters are the organic links established over a lifetime by the politician with the voters that are at play in and outside the political arena. Parties like the JVP tend to over analyse the situation but it is far better for them to understand the reality about the influence of different voter categories on elections and devise their strategies accordingly. It may be that they may have to expand their personal networks and informal relations with different categories of voters. It may also be that they need to visit religious venues far more than they do now, or wear many Pirit Nool or rings in the hand like other politicians do? Understanding the cultural self and mentality is more important in a society like Sri Lanka than rational analysis and discourse to establish rapport with the voter closely or at a distance. Symbolic dimension should not be ignored as it is the only thing that matters for the large majority whose members live away from the politician with actual power. To determine the fate of a whole nation.
Sociological perspectives and cultural-symbolic factors are far more important in understanding, explaining and even influencing the voter behaviour than rational discussions of policies and programs-though the latter has its place among the educated voter groups that are in the minority (Education does not mean getting a degree or similar qualification. It is the ability to read between the lines). Politicians and emerging parties looking to win the hearts and minds of voters need to give due consideration to sociological analysis and factors that determine voter sentiment and behaviour if they are to succeed.