22 December 2014

Mahinda, Maithripala and the Forgotten Voter

Pic courtesy www.paths2people.com
Election Day is less than three weeks away.   Campaigns are gathering intensity.  Candidates and their supporters are falling over each other promising the sun, moon, stars and whatever else they think could please the voter.  They all talk about a clean society and don’t seem to mind the dirty friends that surround them.  They talk of a new political culture even as they pour invective on their respective opponents.  They’ve all become blind to their own flaws.  It’s election season and this is Sri Lanka with its distinct political culture.  Elections as usual. 

Those who have lived through elections, through promises and their breaking, regimes and regime-change, know a lot about promises.  They know of manifestos published and manifestos junked post-election.  They know of mandates obtained and manifestos re-read as per the convenience of the elected.   They know of representation promised and representation forgotten. 

All this is enough to confuse if not give up on this wonderfully sounding thing called ‘participatory democracy’.  But it is not just the older voter with experience of varied hoodwinking by many that is skeptical.    Here’s what a 20 year old who is yet to vote at a major election tweeted a few hours ago: ‘ඡන්දේ ඉල්ලන්නෙත් ඒගොල්ලන්, ඡන්දේ දාන්නෙත් ඒගොල්ලන්, ඡන්දේ දිනන්නත් ඒගොල්ලන්.’  (It is they who as for the vote, it is they who cast the vote and they who win).  The voter is left out, in other words.  Counts, but not really, one could say.

The ‘does not count’ part of it usually begins the moment the Elections Commissioner releases the final result.  This time though, it seems to have begun long before Election Day. 

Let’s not for a moment assume that the voter is stupid.  People think.  They act.  They weight options and compare possible outcomes.  They have with them enough salt and know how to prune off the undeliverable from the promise, taking into account economic, political and cultural factors.  They play ‘Relative Merits’.   And yes, they check track records, as much to calculate ‘ability to deliver’ as to factor in ‘gratitude’ when voting. 

Still, if there’s one constant in all elections big and small over the past several decades, it is the fact that candidates (and/or their supporters) visit the voter for purposes of direct solicitation.  Even in the USA, in this day and age of tweets, shares, status updates, smart phones and close to 100% electronic connectivity no candidate will underestimate the importance of ‘knocking on doors’.  If not for anything, because the voter wants basic recognition of worth, even though he/she knows the time-tested truths of politicians, promises, the small print of manifestos and the re-reading or even junking of mandates.  

That’s what seems to be lacking in this election.  Mahinda Rajapaksa, it can be argued, has been campaigning for more than nine years.   His ‘presence’ in the voter-imagination is obvious.  Indeed, repeated reminders saying ‘Hey, I am Mahinda and I am contesting’ could actually backfire.  Regardless of all this, there seems to be something wrong in his vote-getting machinery; outside of heavily funded processions something seems to be stopping party loyalists from doing the all important knocking-on-doors exercise. 
Overconfidence, perhaps.  It could also be a case of ‘nothing new to say’ or worse, ‘hard to defend’.  Whatever the reason, Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to be focusing on addressing the collective and not the individual.  Whether this will cost him is of course another matter.  What it does say is that the most basic voter-need (that of recognition if only for a moment) is being ignored.  On the other hand, some may argue, that since he has been the most accessible national leader in remembered history and someone who people identify as being someone just like them, he has already ‘recognized’ them. 

It is the same with the Maithripala Sirisena campaign, for different reasons of course.  Someone commented on Facebook that if Sarath Fonseka was the ‘SMS President,’ Maithripala is the Web President’.  The ‘Common Candidate’ has a clear edge in virtual space.  Freshness, regime-fatigue, the President’s face being too in-your-face wherever you look and of course all the negatives of his presidency may have contributed to this state of affairs. 

Still, outside of the internet, there’s very little vote-solicitation to be seen.  Maithripala is a renegade and despite key politicians from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) siding with him, he doesn’t have the party machinery to back him (that Mahinda Rajapaksa is not making use of it or the machine is showing lukewarm response to all entreaties is another matter of course).  Maithripala and his backers can make a lot of noise in cyberspace and on the Satana program on Sirasa TV, but if nothing happens on the ground, then Mahinda Rajapaksa gets the vote by default. 

The Maithripala campaign can easily get sidetracked by mistaking large crowds at rallies as assured votes.  People attend for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes you are drawn to rallies just because you happen to be passing by.  Some people come out of curiosity. Some come because they are bored and because anything, even political rallies, is entertainment for the bored.  

This is his dilemma: When Champika Ranawaka or Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero speak, votes get fixed; when Rajitha Senaratne speaks, nothing happens; when Chandrika Kumaratunga speaks, he loses votes; when Maithripala himself or Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks, people listen and the candidate begins to be considered; the JVP’s support-without-saying-it exercise, in fact, does more for Maithripala than what the likes of Rajitha and Chandrika do. 

The campaign on the ground is yet to see a coordinated house-to-house vote-solicitation exercise launched by the constituent parties of the coalition backing Maithripala.  Doors are not getting knocked on.  And time is running out.