“A group of people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims... but accomplices”
- George Orwell.
With the Presidential Election campaigns coming to an end in a few days, most Sri Lankans who are not yet decided on their voting preferences have become baffled. They are in a quandary trying to make up their minds as to whom they are going to vote for. The country is awash in campaign promises as politicians press to get voters’ attention while each campaigner promising to cure all the ills of society, if he is elected.
One of these voters asked me whether there is any proven scientific way to choose the right person out of the 35 contestants. I moved the same question to a retired university don who is both highly qualified in political science and had a wide long practical experience in the related field.
He replied, “There are no such proven formulae. But I may be able to give some guidelines which might help any voter not affiliated to any party to get an idea whom to select the most suitable candidate while keeping up to his own views and opinions.”
He added, “A growing body of evidence has shown that most Sri Lankans’ voting behaviour is governed by unconscious emotions and very little by rationality. In circumstances where reason is at odds with subjective taste, it is the latter that carries the day. Such biases tend to cause these voters to make bad political decisions”.
The sharp politicians take full advantage of these flawed patterns of thinking and apply the corresponding political manipulation techniques. The final outcome would be that corrupt politicians get into power.
Weak party system
In Sri Lanka, we experience a close relationship between voters and corrupt politicians and encounter a widely observed paradox: unpopular corruption but popular corrupt politicians. Why would the voters support corrupt politicians quite knowingly that their collective action would create adverse effects in the country?
Is the reason, the lack of right information? Or do the voters would willingly condone corruption? Unfortunately, this question has not been widely studied in Sri Lanka. Some leaders believe that voters are more lenient towards corrupt politicians when they are offered material benefits in return for their vote as part of a clientele exchange.
Perhaps the favourite explanation fir this action relates to “weak party systems.” When party leaders knowingly select corrupt people as candidates, the voters are left over with little choice in election. Undoubtedly an empirical link between weak party systems and corruption can be observed, but precisely what this link is and why it exists is less clear.
On the other hand, the answer to the question shows that the representative democracy that we enjoy today is not a palliative to prevent corrupt politicians. To arrive at a right answer, we may require deep political changes that go far beyond the administrative reforms of the “good governance” variety.
There are also theories that we vote according to social class, tribal loyalties to a partisan affiliation or because of strong ideological beliefs. The corruption or inefficiency do not come into this list. It could simply be a matter of self-interest - that we’ll be safer and “better off” with one party’s policies over another.
The conventional wisdom, both in the popular and scholarly literature, is that some voters vote for corrupt politicians due to lack of knowledge. If you are one of them and clueless how to make an unbiased decision, the university Don’s six tips might be useful.
(1) Decide what you are looking for in a candidate. Candidates can be judged in two ways: (a) the positions they take on issues and (b) the leadership qualities and experience they would bring to office. Both are important. When you consider issues, think about community or national problems that you want him to address. For example, you may be interested in the threat of terrorist attacks. His answer that he would not allow it to happen is not a good answer. You need to know how.
When you consider leadership qualities, think about the characteristics you want in an effective leader. Do you look for intelligence, honesty, an ability to communicate?
(2) Find out about the candidates. Find the family, educational and career backgrounds of all candidates. Collect any campaign information you can find on the candidates. Sources of information from which you may choose may include, campaign web sites, newspapers, television, and radio, candidates’ speeches, candidate debates.
(3) Evaluate candidates’ stands on issues. Do the materials give you an overall impression of the candidates? What specific conclusions can you draw about the candidates’ stand on issues?
(4) Learn about the candidates’ leadership abilities. Observe the candidates’ campaigns. Do they accept speaking engagements before different groups - even those groups that might not be sympathetic? Do they accept invitations to debate? Do the campaigns emphasize media events where the candidates can be seen but not heard? Review the campaign materials. As you read the materials and watch the campaign develop, you may get insights into candidates’ personalities and leadership qualities
(5) Learn how other people view the candidates.
It may help you to clarify your own views if you can find out what other people think about the candidates. However, you should not discount you own informed judgments.
Have chats with three people (not family members) to find out their opinions and what has shaped their political opinions. Was it an event? An idea or program proposed by a candidate? A particular issue about which they feel strongly? A long-standing party loyalty?
(6) Sort them all out.
Compare all the candidates. Ask yourself these final questions: Which candidate’s view on the issues do you agree with the most? Who ran the fairest campaign? Which candidate demonstrated the most knowledge on the issues? Which candidate has the leadership qualities you are looking for?
Is the choice clear? If so, pick the candidate. But wait a minute. There are a few pitfalls you have to avoid.
Candidates’ use of television
As you watch news coverage of campaigns, be aware of staged events and try to find out what the candidate is saying about the issues. When you watch political ads, you need to be aware of how the media influences your reactions. Ask yourself some questions as you watch. Did you find out anything about issues or qualifications? Or was the ad designed only to affect your attitude or feelings about a candidate?
- Seeing through distortion techniques.
All candidates are trying to sell themselves to voters. Sometimes their language is so skilfully crafted that they distort the truth in ways that are difficult for even the most careful observer to detect. Here are some examples of distortion techniques that you should watch for as you review candidates’ campaign materials.
- Name calling/appeals to prejudice: These are attacks on an opponent based on characteristics that will not affect performance in office. References to race, ethnicity or lineage issues can be subtly used to instil prejudice.
- Rumour-mongering: These include statements such as, “There is information to say that my opponent has dome some corrupt dealings” which imply (but do not state) that the opponent is guilty.
- Catchwords: These are phrases such as “national security” or “ treacherous” that are designed to trigger a knee-jerk emotional reaction rather than to inform.
- Promising the sky: These are unrealistic promises that no one elected official could fulfil.
- Evading real issues: These include instances in which candidates may avoid answering direct questions, offer only vague solutions or talk about the benefits of proposed programs but never get specific about possible problems or costs.
One last point...
If you are substantially closer to either of the two major party candidates, you can simply go with that, unless you have strong doubts about the fitness of that candidate for office.
If you are closest to a third-party candidate, the bad news is that this candidate will almost certainly lose. You are then left with two choices. One. you could go ahead and vote for the candidate you have selected. Two, if you want your vote to make an impact in determining how the country will be governed in the next five years, you have to choose one out of the two major party candidates, whoever is closest to your preferences.