The presidential election is on us. It seems that each presidential campaign season brings with it no shortage of new (mostly old) ideas of how to fix what ails our country. Many of these gems involve spending a lot of taxpayer money - mainly because that’s an easy way to buy voters and contributes little practical thought -- on peripheral problems, many of which may or may not, in fact, be problems.
What’s seems to be lost in these conversations is an honest and rigorous evaluation of how we got here. Today the country’s system of Governance is a mess. Naturally, the average voter today is confused. He cannot fathom as to which politician he can trust or which political party he can depend upon.
"Because of the close link between money and political power, many voters believe the system is rigged against the average person. Big money talks, and while campaign donors have ready access to politicians, the average citizen is often ignored and has no voice"
We have been told over and over by these politicians that we have a free choice on whom we vote for. We have also been told that we can expect a “free and fair” election. According to them we have one of the best democracies in the world. The statement gives a “nice” feeling to the average voter. But he is still confused because he has three questions, yet unanswered.
His three questions are as follows: During the past seven decades, have we used that “freedom” to elect honest and talented people? If we have, then why should most of the people be disappointed in the integrity of our political system? Doesn’t it show that a huge disconnect exists between us, the voters and the people who are getting elected.
These are valid questions. None of the current candidates will dare to answer them. On top of these three questions, one of the other things often spoken is the average citizen’s disgust about the influx of money into politics and the undue influence of special interests and lobbyists. Because of the close link between money and political power, many voters believe the system is rigged against the average person. Big money talks, and while campaign donors have ready access to politicians, the average citizen is often ignored and has no voice.
While thinking on these lines, sometimes I think that voting in Sri Lanka is just like buying a packet of cereal. The rationale is simple. You have a choice to make. You obtain information from the box, from past experience, from ads and commercials and from friends. You cannot taste every cereal, so you end up with two options; first is to the pack you’ve always bought and be happy, the second is to evaluate the information you have collected and make up your mind to buy another brand or not. If you want to take a mental shortcut, go for option number one.
"We have been told over and over by these politicians that we have a free choice on whom we vote for. We have also been told that we can expect a “free and fair” election. According to them we have one of the best democracies in the world."
Unfortunately, a normal Sri Lankan is weak in evaluating choices, particularly the political ones. When two-thirds of Sri Lankan voters know only little about politics, it’s the smart politician who always wins. When faced with an important decision like picking a President, the average citizen often struggles to see through the blizzard of conflicting information. That’s where the mental shortcut will come in. He will select the candidate on the basis of political colour, familiarity or “what’s in it for me.”
We have different types of voters in Sri Lanka. Generally, we call them “bloc voters” and “floating voters.” A block vote is a large number of votes that are all cast in the same way. Floating voters collectively are those not permanently attached to any political party.
However, political analysts in USA have identified 11 types of voters. With 55 years of my experience in voting, I have detected six types of voters in Sri Lanka.
(1) The Informed Voter
He definitely knows his political stuff and actively seeks as much information as possible about all candidates. Then he considers the positives and negatives and evaluates them carefully. He watches TV news and political discussions, reads newspapers and magazines and listens without commitment to the views of neighbours and officemates. His strategy is likely to lead to a vote across party lines.
(2) The Rigid Voter
He does not watch TV or read the news or listen to politicians speak or read about election promises. He has taken a rice and curry meal for dinner every single day for the past 20 years. He is not interested in his Doctor’s advice to swap to chicken or fish sandwich and salad with milk. The meal of rice and curry is just fine for him, and so is his unchanging dedication to his political party. Party identification is his primary driver. He is not bothered about the performance and integrity of the candidate selected by his party.
(3) The Frugal Voter (also called single-issue voter)
He learns the candidate’s viewpoint only on topics he really cares about, ignoring all else. For example, if a candidate is extremely nationalistic, the frugal voter loves him. He knows they are emotional issues and not policy choices but he thinks they matter to him.
"Such approaches should take into account that a voter’s background has the largest influence on his decision. Voter background means the voter’s social identity, such as economic class, ethnicity, gender, race and religious preference"
(4) The Swinging Voter
He is a person who never watches a television programme all the way through because he keeps on changing channels to find out whether there is a better programme elsewhere. He has at least four different hairstyles every month. He has tried being vegan, paleo, gluten-free, sugar-free and pescatarian during past six months. On election day, he does not make his final decision until he is standing at the cardboard booth, pencil in hand.
(5) The Low Informed Voter
He may vote, yet he is poorly informed about issues. He generally votes for a candidate who he finds personally appealing. For example, he may prefer candidate X for wearing national costume and be friendly with the villagers but dislike Y and Z as elitist for wearing tie and coat and cannot speak the mother tongue fluently.
(6) The Donkey Voter
He dislikes all political parties equally. He says anarchy would be better or we need a dictator to develop the country. He might cast his ballot to any of the candidates, usually the first one in the list because he doesn’t care who wins. He probably doesn’t even know who’s running, and he just wants to get out of the voting booth and down to the club for a cold beer,
"When faced with an important decision like picking a President, the average citizen often struggles to see through the blizzard of conflicting information. That’s where the mental shortcut will come in. He will select the candidate on the basis of political colour, familiarity or “what’s in it for me”
Now, let’s take a look at voter behaviour during the forthcoming presidential election. The study of voter behaviour is an examination of why people vote the way they do.
Nearly one-thirds of Sri Lankan voters closely follow political issues. They are not affiliated to any party. I call them Informed voters. Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka terms them as “floating voters” and estimates the total to be around five million. They can be the deciding factor that could tilt the scales. They will not be swayed by rhetoric or promises made on the election platform, but evaluate the merits of the candidates from his/her own perspective.
There is another important segment of voters. Rigid voters or bloc votes. Their impressions regarding particular candidates and political parties are deep-rooted. Most voters already know how they will vote, even in the early stages of a campaign. It is rare for campaigns to change the minds of voters.
However, studies show that most of other types of voters (listed above) do not follow political happenings. They make their political decisions, and voting decisions, based on factors other than the political issues. A well-planned election campaign can successfully sway enough voters from these four types to influence the predicted outcome of an election. Each group should be handled in carefully planned different approaches.
Such approaches should take into account that a voter’s background has the largest influence on his decision. Voter background means the voter’s social identity, such as economic class, ethnicity, gender, race and religious preference. Intelligent candidates will purposely gear appropriate campaign messages to each particular segment of voters, using the right themes.
In the last Parliamentary Election in India, Narendra Modi used this technique