t does not reflect well on the UNP, when rival underworld gangs clash in its election campaign. Now police suspect that shooting in Kotahena that killed one woman and injured 13 others was due to a longstanding rivalry between the two underworld gangs; The members of one gang were canvassing for Ravi Karunanayake, when the members of the rival gang opened fire.
But, why do politicians of all political parties hire the underworld to conduct their election campaign? Why do they prefer the services of Bloemendhal Sanka and Dematagoda Chaminda or some other thug who was recently granted bail over the expertise of the ‘intelligentsia’, who made weekly appearance at that ITN talk show, Doramadalawa.
The answer lies in the practical logic: In general, politics is not just about intellectual deliberations and reasoning; in the Sri Lankan context, there is much more to do in terms of mobilising, organising, demonstrating, canvassing and also threatening political opponents and their supporters. Those activities require intensity and commitment, but not necessarily knowledge or political sophistication. So the Mora Sunil is a better bet than Mr Suriyappperuma. And due to the zero sum nature of our politics, there is little incentive even for the well intentioned politicians to shun the services delivered by the underworld gangsters. If rejected, gangsters would move on to his opponent. Given organisational capabilities and human resources at the disposal of those underworld factions, politicians who shun those gangs would be at a considerable disadvantage via a vis his opponents.
During the election campaigns in recent times, Duminda Silva and Mervyn Silva stole the show from more established and better respected candidates. And the visibility and the reach of their campaigns which was ably assisted by those petty criminals and drug peddling youth, and overseen by their hardcore overlords finally translated into votes; both of them polled more votes than meek yet principled candidates.
"Their political choices are hardly driven by principles or rational calculations; they are more likely to vote for a village thug, a Wine Stores owner or a soap opera star. "
And, if we expect the voters to shun the politicians who harbour the underworld, we are being too idealistic. Results of Parliamentary and Provincial Council elections in the recent past would reveal that politicians known for thuggery polled more votes than their restrained counterparts. I do not wish to give a list of names for obvious legal reasons, but one can easily check the preferential vote lists of the last parliamentary and provincial council election available in the department of elections website.
And, if you do not indulge in thuggary and if you still want to have a decent shot at politics, then, you have to be a film star.
There is a universal consensus that an informed electorate is essential to good democratic practice. However, nowhere in the world, do you have that ideal knowledgeable citizenry; if that is the case Donald Trump would not be calling out Mexican immigrants ‘rapists’ and Wimal Weerawansa would find it hard to incite racism on every other day.
In our society, like elsewhere, there are some people, in fact, quite a lot of them, who are dumb and simply politically ignorant.
Interesting enough though, in the 1950s, some conservative political scientists argued that having a portion of the population as politically ignorant is, in fact, necessary for maintaining democracy. If all people were passionately involved and deeply attached with issue based politics, stakes would be too high and potential polarization of society on those lines would loom large. That was their argument.
I don’t think that line of argument holds water any longer. The most likely scenario in modern times, where mass politics have penetrated every nook and corner of politicians, like Wimal Weerawansa, would exploit the ignorance of people to turn them into vicious Zombies.
Sri Lankan people are very political, but at the same time, they are ignorant in terms of issue based politics. Their political choices are hardly driven by principles or rational calculations; they are more likely to vote for a village thug, a Wine Stores owner or a soap opera star.
This may denote the cheapness of the electorate, which has deteriorated to the level at which drug kingpins and rapists contest and win elections to public office.
"Results of Parliamentary and Provincial Council elections in the recent past would reveal that politicians known for thuggery polled more votes than their restrained counterparts"
An ill-informed or ignorant voter is a bad voter. When you are eating at a restaurant or boozing in a bar, whatever the choices you consume would have a bearing only on you. You will have to live with its consequences.
However, when you are casting your vote to elect your parliamentarian or the president, you are deciding not only on your behalf, but also on behalf of the rest of the citizenry.
In other words, when you make a bad decision, you will be imposing its cost on the rest of the society.
Of course, a single vote does not have a decisive impact. But, when a large segment of the population is ignorant and vote blindly, they are imposing the cost of their decision on the rest of the society. We have sent crooks, rapists and thugs to Parliament. That is where you see the pernicious influence of collective ignorance.
Also shrewd bosses of political parties have exploited that ignorance. Ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa was one of the smart operators. He fielded film stars, sporting heroes and gangsters from the UPFA nomination list and brought down Salman Khan to one of his campaign rallies in Colombo. That is one way to manipulate an ignorant electorate.
James Madison famously said “a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to farce or tragedy or perhaps both.”
However, here the problem is not the lack of information or accessibility. Those who will vote to send those least salubrious individuals to Parliament, know their past track record. However, that does not stop them from voting for thugs, rapists and swindlers. What makes those elements attractive for the voter needs further analysis.
The obvious point is what I referred to at the outset. Politics requires intensity and commitment, and not necessarily knowledge or political sophistication. And in our case, intensity and thuggery often prevail over political sophistication.
This has resulted in the lowering standards of the political office. In Sri Lanka, like in most other countries, while the size of the electorate and popular participation have increased over the past six decades, the quality of politics and political decisions have declined. Obviously gangsters, mudalalies and film stars are not the best ones to make policy decisions on behalf of the public.
However, some of their idiosyncrasies are mitigated by institutions, bureaucracy and constitutional provisions such as the 19th Amendment. But, as the chicanery in our last Parliament revealed such personalities are destined to become lapdogs of their political bosses, by extension, they help eroding the very democracy they pledged to protect.
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