Presidential Election campaign has begun. Three contestants have already entered the battlefield and up to now, the campaign moves peacefully.
Before long, however, the airwaves, the billboards and roadside walls will be taken over by the candidates. The TV and radio channels and newspapers will ignore most events other than those related to the elections. And we, the humble citizens, will gobble up every piece of information that is dished out to us. When it comes to elections, we often find ourselves puzzled as to whom we should vote for? (Unless, of course, one is an orthodox die-hard party supporter).
My next-door neighbour was insistent that he wouldn’t vote in this election because none of the choices so far seem to be a perfect fit. However, he changed his decision when I told him that his vote for one candidate is not a proclamation of his full faith in that person. Instead, it’s a decision to elect the best among the given options.
James Madison, the primary author of the US Constitution, wrote in the Federalist Papers (#57): “The aim of a political Constitution is, (or ought to be), first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”
Madison’s two points - the need to get systems and procedures right so that politicians act in the public interest and the need to elect political candidates who are competent and honest enough to discharge their duties - have not received due consideration in Sri Lanka. Yet it was the main reason why most of the politicians of this government, as well as previous governments, were not only incompetent but became so corrupt.
As a democratic country, the Government is expected to function in the context of a nexus of values that restrain corruption and narrow self-interest. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened so far and happening in near future is doubtful. We failed to elect honest and competent people for the Parliament; when corrupt politicians were found inside, we failed to discipline them; we failed to provide a means of filtering nominated candidates to find out whether they are fit to serve. This scenario reminds us what Robert Louis Stevenson said in 1882: ‘Politics is perhaps the only profession for which neither qualification nor preparation is deemed necessary.”
"As a democratic country, the Government is expected to function in the context of a nexus of values that restrain corruption and narrow self-interest. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened so far and happening in near future is doubtful"
The scope of the success of any Government depends ultimately on the elected men and women who run it. That is why there should be high emphasis on those we elect to office. That is what Madison stressed 237 years ago. The past seven decades of our grim political history proves beyond doubt that Sri Lankan voters are not good on selection of right political candidates.
Adolf Hitler who, after his election as Chancellor of Germany, showed contempt for the constraints placed for his actions through the constitution. A number of modern-day politicians when they were initially elected, show similar contempt for constraints. Mahinda Rajapaksa was one. He presented 18th Amendment to the Constitution to get rid of those constraints.
Now let us go back to our issue. Who should I vote for? Before we answer the question, let’s pause for a moment, and think about the major issues related to political leadership as experienced in Sri Lanka today. (1) In our country, political power has become a corrupting force. (2) In our type of democracy although all people are meant to be equal, some people are more equal than others. (3) In our political system, the ideal has become a demotivating dream. The gap between the ideal and the reality is ever widening and the result is that more and more people are losing confidence in the present political process. Because of these three facts, any political leadership in Sri Lanka could only prove effective if three requirements are fulfilled:
Social, economic stability
The latest World Bank Report says that Sri Lanka has made significant progress in its socio-economic and human development indicators. Social indicators rank among the highest in South Asia and compare favourably with those in middle-income countries.
But our fiscal revenues are low. Government salary Bill is very high. Interest payments are high. Debt levels are high and the overall debt portfolio indicate some important risks. Our expenditure on health, education and social protection is low compared to peer countries. What does each contestant propose to do if he secures the post? Let’s have detailed explanation.
Political maturity in our society
Franklin Roosevelt once said: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely.” It is doubtful whether a majority of our voters qualify to meet this requirement. A growing body of evidence has shown that our political behaviour is governed more by emotions and less by rationality. Candidates also target their campaign mainly towards this segment of their market. Politically matured few has a major role to play to educate the rest as much as possible.
Leaders are competent, not corrupt
Voters in Sri Lanka have conditioned their minds to accept the possibility that the leaders they elect will become accustomed to enjoying the privileges, prestige and eventually might become corrupt that comes along with their positions. They will disregard it so long as they are competent and deliver some identifiable results no matter whether they pilfer the public money. For the voters, there is no other alternative.
Selecting right candidate
Now we can find an answer to the question. To whom should I vote? Maybe we can take a cue from “The League of Women Voters” - an activist, grassroots organization who believe that voters should play a critical role in democracy. The organisation has provided some guidelines how we should select the right candidate. The following is a summary of it.
Step 1: Decide the issues that you care about and the qualities you want in a leader: When you consider issues, think about your regional issues and national problems that you want him to address? Make a list.
Step 2: Gather materials about the candidates: Collect any records you can find on the candidates. Sources of information you may choose to review include: campaign literature, direct mail letters, press reports (newspaper clippings and radio. television and radio reports), radio and television, candidates’ speeches etc Keep a journal.
Step 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’ stands on issues? Record what you have learned about their stands on your priority issues from each source.
Step 4: Learn about the candidates’ leadership abilities: Do you look for intelligence, honesty, integrity, morality, an ability to communicate? What else? Check how much your preferred qualities match with each candidate. Check his background and experience. How prepared is he for the job? As you read the materials and watch the campaign develop, add to your journal information that provides insights into candidates’ personalities and leadership qualities.
Step 5: Learn how other people, including media commentators, view the candidate: Now that you have accumulated information from campaigns and other sources, you will want to learn what other people think about the candidates. Their opinions can help clarify your own views, but do not discount your own informed judgements.
Step 6: Sort them all out. Review the information and compare all the candidates: Ask yourself these final questions: Which candidate’s views on the issues do I agree with the most? Who ran the fairest campaign? Which candidate demonstrated the most knowledge on the issues? Which candidate has the leadership qualities I am looking for?
Is your choice clear...? Pick your candidate
Remember - all candidates are trying to sell themselves to voters. Sometimes their language is so skillfully crafted that they distort the truth in ways that are difficult for even the most careful observer to detect. Keep a sharp eye and filter.
Some analysts believe Sri Lankans vote according to social class, tribal loyalties to a party or because of strong ideological beliefs. It could even simply be a matter of self-interest - that we’ll be “better off” with one party’s policies over another. In this crucial time, do not let any of those factors influence your judgement.