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The 15%


Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, President Maithripala Sirisena

"I think to not be optimistic is just about the most privileged thing you can be. If you can be pessimistic, you are basically deciding that there’s no hope for a whole group of people who can’t afford to think that way."

Ophelia Dahl, quoted in The New Yorker’s World Changers list, 18-25 December 2017 issue

Sanjana Hattotuwa

As the patina of three years colours yahapalanaya, 2017 too comes to an end. Comprehensive reform initiatives, done best and easily in the first half of a new government, will now be conducted in some shape and form over 2018. It is unclear now what measure of success they will enjoy.

The New Year begins with an electoral litmus test, and does not let up. The former regime has already and openly called it a measure of confidence in the current government. Out of 15.7 million eligible voters, as much as 700,000 will vote for the first time. This is the same number the Elections Department said were first time voters in January 2010. In January 2015, the number of those who voted for the first time was reportedly 955,990. Accordingly, in early 2018, around 15% of the total electorate will be between 18-34-years old, who in turn are first to fifth time voters.

This is a demographic bulge with significant electoral consequences. From the way they get news and information to how they trust and perceive content, traditional politics, politicians and political propaganda will need to embrace a significant shift in voter engagement. This in turn will entail investments in different ways – from the fielding of younger candidates to the use of pop stars and television idols in campaigns, and importantly, brand new ways of influencing this specific demographic using social media. This will include the dissemination of carefully and compellingly guised misinformation, campaigns anchored to fear, falsehood, fraternity or more generally, by promoting puerile patriotism.

Investments will include ‘troll armies’ – large numbers of geographically dispersed individuals paid by a political party or candidate to promote an idea, individual, party or process by amplifying a set of voices, and violently attacking any and all opposition, critical questioning or alternatives posed online. Coupled with this, investments will also be technical and automated, ensuring that followers of key social media accounts are inflated and also engineered to give the impression around the mass appeal of an idea, by creating an echo chamber of seemingly diverse sounding individuals – with Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala names, both male and female – thereby securing the legitimate attention and buy-in of young, impressionable voters.

It is unclear to what degree, if any, traditional electoral architects in political parties, leave aside the Department of Elections, are embracing these dangers – and for some, verdant opportunities – into their electioneering and election monitoring, respectively. The risk is simple to outline, though much harder to address. Sri Lanka has a very high literacy rate. It also has a very poor media and information literacy. Especially as the distribution of content over social media grows and takes root, a generation conditioned with a pedagogy in school and university that overwhelmingly teaches only rote learning, does not know how to critically question or analyse what they consume. The result is a vote base quick to judge and temper, who act and only later, if at all, think.

Rumour, misinformation and more sophisticated electoral campaigns – using, amongst other means, a method called psycho-metric targeting – exploits this media and information literacy deficit for parochial gain, ensuring support for and belief in the most incredible of claims to the detriment of a campaign based on sober reflection, principled opposition, facts, civil engagement or any honest assessment. The risk here is real, present and growing. There are individuals and political parties in our country who are already, silently but effectively exploiting the general ignorance in this area and the near total lack of any oversight, laws or regulations. They are going after the hearts and minds of 15% of the electorate who will, if 2015’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections were anything to go by, be decisive in who gains power, and loses it – next year and beyond.

Combating all this requires optimism. Painting only doom and gloom does a disservice to the aspirations of young, first time voters and their worldview. The 15% of the electorate that is the battle-ground of political contestation during elections is also the country’s best hope of achieving our democratic potential. There are innovators and entrepreneurs here, creating new ventures that serve global markets. There are social change makers, guided more by what can be done through cooperation and collaboration, a marked difference from more established civil society organisations which compete, viciously, for donor funding. An impatience with governance as it stands, and the embracing of pervasive, affordable new technologies brings with it the potential of socio-political and indeed, economic reform to which this generation alone holds almost all the keys to.

From smartphone apps that do real-time tracking of garbage disposal trucks in the East to timely updates of trains better than what any official source is even close to providing, from citizen monitoring and early warning of adverse weather conditions to mobile platforms that track and assist in addressing gender based violence, there are a growing number of interesting needs-based, citizen generated initiatives that entirely by-pass government to provide vital services, brings into government new thinking that’s long-overdue, or by openly shaming the incompetence of public officials, forces government to upgrade their own skills, services and support structures.

Given the performance of government over the past three years, it is clear that public communication isn’t high on the agenda. This is a big problem. A recent and characteristically vague promise by the PM around a social media referendum, whatever that meant and perhaps thankfully, hasn’t seen the light of day. Every day we are told sections of polity and society are with one or the other political grouping. There is a lot of lecturing or posturing, and not a whole lot of engagement.

There is no meaningful capture of what really the 15% of the electorate over 2018 actually do, who they are, what they want and aspire to be, who their role models are, what they want out of politics and politicians, and how they would like to see governance frameworks that aid their work, goals and life choices. This impacts political analysis as well, because the pessimism we project over Sri Lanka’s democratic fabric over 2018 is based on, largely speaking, an ignorance of what nearly 2.4 million voters think, perceive or believe in. Strategically, they are now thought of in utilitarian terms around how, either misguided or falsely animated, they are useful pawns in parochial politics. The spectrum of responses to this must embrace a more attentive, responsive engagement to highlight what makes this demographic tick - not just with a view to using them for various political ends, but as a way of celebrating what even with the greatest of hostility, difficulty, bias, corruption and bureaucratic bungling, these young people have achieved in a wide range of fields and disciplines.

In them, entirely independent of who is in power and in government, lie the longer-term resilience of Sri Lanka – an enduring hope around incremental change and progress which requires the cultivation of minds, innovation and trust beyond electoral contests. Our better angels are not with any political force or party. They are in the 15% everyone in power covets. Arguably, this 15% needs its own representation; its own leadership; its own voice. They are a new bloc. They are a paradigm shift.

2015 was a harbinger of this shift. 2018 will see the cementing of it. Both as curse and blessing, we live in interesting times!

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