Many people of all walks of life have already expressed their opinions on the outcome of the Presidential election concluded on last Saturday. It is important for political leaders to know why people voted in the way they did as they can not only learn useful lessons from it but also understand the motivations for their voting behaviour. Yet, do the opinions expressed by various commentators help the policy makers? Yes, such opinions can help, but only if such opinions in fact reflect the actual concerns of the voters. On the other hand, we know that opinions do not necessarily reflect the actual motivations of people.
How can we find out the real motivations of the people unless we give the people an opportunity to express their own views. In this article, I intend to draw some data from a survey conducted about two weeks prior to the Presidential election based on a purposed sample of 1550 actual voters drawn from areas selected from different regions of the country. The respondents of the survey were interviewed by experienced field researchers in a face to face setting with their consent. In the remainder of the article, I present and discuss some of the findings.
As the researchers in the social sciences know, behaviour of people is determined by not only their knowledge and attitudes but also their lived experiences. Therefore, it is necessary that we have information on all these aspects. Since we have collected data on the socio-economic background of respondents, their opinions and lived experiences, we are in a position to find out the actual motivations for their voting behaviour. Since this is a short article, only key findings can be presented and discussed here.
As we all know, people’s life circumstances such as poverty, unemployment, etc. Influence their behaviour. Our national level data coming from State institutions does not necessarily reveal the actual life circumstances of people. For instance, if we go by official poverty data, the impression one gets is that there are not many poor people in the country. But, data coming from the same institutions on household income and expenditure would reveal a very different picture. Similarly, if we find out the key issues they face in their day to day lives, again the picture might be quite different. The pattern that emerges from such data can be very useful for us to understand the overall voting behaviour of a population. On the other hand, when people elect a leader to govern the country, people’s understanding of the key challenges of the country can influence their decision to vote for a particular candidate.
What are the key issues and concerns of the people who were interviewed? The vast majority of the respondents (75 %) mentioned inadequate income to meet household expenses as a key issue they face today. Two other major concerns of a large number of people were: lack of permanent employment (44%) and children’s higher education (44%). Other issues mentioned by a sizeable number of respondents were: lack of a permanent house) (27%), illness/disability (22%), lack of agricultural land (17%) and harms from animals (7.7%).
What are the challenges the country is facing today? It is remarkable that 60% of the people identify cost of living as a major challenge in the country. Other key challenges of the country they identify are: national security (51%), slow economic development (46%), youth unemployment (40%), lack of ethnic harmony (30%), lack of suitable people’s representatives (29%) and foreign debts (28%). It is noteworthy that many people identify the issue of electing suitable people’s representatives as a major challenge in the country.
"The voters naturally assess the candidates strengths and weaknesses in relation to these issues and challenges. So, if a particular candidate is perceived as strong in relation to more of these issues, they naturally opt for that candidate as against other candidates"
When we look at the individual or family level issues that people identify, they would naturally expect the leader elected to have the capacity and readiness to provide remedies to such issues. Similarly, as regards the challenges that the country is faced with, the voters expect the leader they elect to have the capacity to address them. In this regard, the candidate representing the incumbent government would be at a disadvantage or advantage, depending on the people’s perception or assessment of its performance. As is well known, the performance of the incumbent government in regard to many of the issues mentioned above, both at a household level as well as at a national level has been mixed at best.
As mentioned above, people identify many issues and challenges that a new regime coming to power after elections are expected to address. So, the voters naturally assess the candidates strengths and weaknesses in relation to these issues and challenges. So, if a particular candidate is perceived as strong in relation to more of these issues, voters naturally opt for that candidate as against other candidates. In order to find out about the motivation of respondents to opt for a particular candidate, they were asked to select from a set of possible reasons. Responses to this question revealed that candidates were perceived to have varying strengths and potentialities in relation to diverse areas such as economy, national security, ethnic and religious loyalty, party affiliation, education and knowledge, ability to eliminate corruption and racial attitudes. When we look at the candidates who occupied the first three positions, they differed widely in terms of their perceived strengths in the above regard. On the other hand, if a particular candidate was highly assessed by more people in relation to more important areas than the other candidates, he naturally moves up in terms of overall popularity. As mentioned before, a large proportion of respondents identified income and development-related issues, national security and youth unemployment as key concerns for them.
Now we know the outcome of the presidential election. When we look at the President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa, more respondents had identified him as strong in relation to the development process (26%), national security (16%), political party affiliation (13%), and ethno-religious loyalty ( 22%). As for Sajith Premadasa, key areas of strength identified were: party affiliation (24%), economy (21%), not being a racist (17%). The strengths that many respondents identify for Anura Kumara Dissanayake were in the areas of the economy (24%), elimination of corruption (26%) and education and knowledge (10%). These figures are based on the first priority areas identified by respondents.
As we have already seen, most of the national level challenges identified by respondents are related to the economy and development, i.e. Cost of living, lack of regular income, economic stagnation, youth unemployment, and foreign debts, national security and ethnic harmony. So, these issues have been critically important from the point of view of voters.
As mentioned before, identification of issues and challenges by people depend not only on their lived experiences but also on the information they get from the media and others. In this regard, the roles of media institutions have been highly significant, besides the on going political party campaigns. What is also noteworthy is that the socio-economic background of the respondents also influences their responses. The factors involved here are: educational attainment, employment status, gender, ethnicity and age. While educational level is not a decisive factor, activity status has been significant.
"The failure of the last regime to address pressing problems faced by the people and the inability to respond to national challenges that prepared the ground for outcome of the Presidential election"
What does the above analysis show? As we all know, national security was highlighted by some as the most important issues in this election but what is evident is that economic and social issues like cost of living, lack of regular employment and a steady income, youth unemployment and corruption have been identified by many people in the survey as very important issues for them. National security that figured prominently in media discussions is also identified as an important issue. What has also come out as a major problem is the disenchantment with the current people’s representatives in the country. Other national issues highlighted by many respondents in the survey are economic stagnation, foreign debts and national reconciliation.
These findings do not reflect very well on the post-2015 regime and its leaders whose behaviour has been irresponsible to say the least. In fact, it is the failure of the last regime to address pressing problems faced by the people and the inability to respond to national challenges that prepared the ground for outcome of the Presidential election. It is hoped that the new regime and the opposition parties concentrate on all issues identified by people with equal emphasis rather than focus on one or two issues. This is no doubt the wish of the people, irrespective of their ethno-religious affiliations or political party loyalties.
One final observation that is relevant in the context of the Presidential election is the evident ethnic polarisation between the majority community and the ethnic minority. While the President-elect had overwhelming support from Sinhala majority districts, the candidate representing the incumbent government had overwhelming support from the districts mostly inhabited by minorities. While this outcome has been widely discussed in ethno-nationalist terms, what is completely overlooked is the fact that the candidate who enjoyed overwhelming support of the Minority ethnic communities is one who is very closely identified with the Sinhala Buddhist community. This shows that minority community members voted for him irrespective of his identity, irrespective of the fact that there were candidates from their own communities.