The politics of participation


Former President

Sanjana Hattotuwa

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2017 report has a particularly revealing quote from Edward Luce, who in his 2017 book ‘The retreat of Western liberalism’ observes that "our societies are split between the will of the people and the rule of the experts—the tyranny of the majority versus the club of self-serving insiders". Luce is focused on the West – Europe, the UK and US in particular – but his central thesis of democratic decline, because of a rise in populism and an authoritarian resurgence, finds resonance in helping explain the situation in Sri Lanka.

The threat to democracy in this reading comes not because of manipulative foreign actors, but the disenchantment with and distrust of democratic dialogue and institutions by constituencies increasing taken in by a toxic recipe. Misinformation, a general decline in trust around media, rising intolerance of difference, increased social and religious clustering around identity markers that are exclusive, a proclivity to the violent resolution of conflict and an increasingly divided electorate on partisan lines are some of the ingredients in this recipe, which in fact, we are co-creators of. As the Economist notes, "The popular reaction to an economic and political system which many voters feel has left them behind is presented as the cause of democracy’s ailments rather than a consequence of them".

The report is helpful to understand risk vectors in Sri Lanka that aren’t adequately discussed. The democracy recession can be seen in, according to the Economist, through declining popular participation in elections and politics, weaknesses in the functioning of government, declining trust in institutions, dwindling appeal of mainstream representative parties, growing influence of unelected, unaccountable institutions and expert bodies, widening gap between political elites and electorates, decline in media freedoms and the erosion of civil liberties, including curbs on free speech. Many of these one finds not just in Western liberal democracies but in Sri Lanka post-2015. We have a country with very high adult literacy losing faith in democratic government. The communication of the government’s failures, coupled with the failure of government to communicate, are two sides of a problem that is leading to the erosion of trust. The electoral implications are not theoretical. The February 10 local elections demonstrated the degree to which the government has lost popular appeal. This is not the same as saying that the Rajapaksas, JO or Pohottuwa have gained any greater appeal. The electorate is faced with a conundrum – on the one hand, a largely liberal and democratic government unable to fulfill its lofty promises and is insensitive and technocratic to boot. On the other, representatives of a more authoritarian form of government who seek a return to power and though essentially corrupt, brutal and violent, gets things done, puts everyone in their place and are masters at generating populist charisma by posing frequently with children with plaits or pottu, infants, the disabled, soldiers, the poor, priests and old people. Embedded in this reading is an asymmetry of generating self-serving spin and positive optics for parochial gain. The current government is horrible at it. The former government wrote the rulebook on it.

This all feeds into what is a systemic problem of politics in the way it is negotiated, conducted and perceived. In 2014, the Economist gave Sri Lanka a score of 4.44 for political participation, a metric that measures the degree to which the population engages in electoral processes and more generally, is involved with governance mechanisms between elections. By 2016 this had increased to 5.00. It remains the same in 2017. There is also a metric for political culture. The Economist flags this as "crucial for the legitimacy, smooth functioning and ultimately the sustainability of democracy. A culture of passivity and apathy, an obedient and docile citizenry, are not consistent with democracy. The electoral process periodically divides the population into winners and losers. A successful democratic political culture implies that the losing parties and their supporters accept the judgment of the voters and allow for the peaceful transfer of power".

In 2014 and 2016, Sri Lanka scores 6.88. Intuitively, especially if one supports the current government, you would expect this score to be stable or rise. Instead, in 2017, the score goes down, to 6.25. What we see in these figures is a risk vector that ironically is pertinent precisely because of the numbers that turned out to vote in 2015’s Presidential and General elections. In both instances, a youth bulge in the electorate – first time voters as well as second to fourth time voters, all between 18 to 34 – supported the elections of those currently in power. The social engineering to get this demographic go out and vote was conducted over social media almost exclusively for the Presidential Election. By August 2015, the apathy and disappointment with the new government had already taken seed, which is why another concerted effort to get young people engaged in political communications was needed.

Most if not all of this content generation and strategizing was done by civil society – some admittedly with partisan bias and intent, others more involved and interested in generating interest amongst the youth in our electoral processes and the value of democratic institutions. Either way, what is evident today is that the heightened interest and participation in political conversations, just three years ago, has now led to deep disappointment and disgruntled disengagement. This fits very well with those who want to regain power, mirroring how in the US, Republicans in 2016 used against Democrats technologies and strategies first imagined, seeded and set in motion as part of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. The revolt of authoritarians or as the Economist called it in 2016, the revenge of the deplorables ironically happens on the very social, media and technological foundations put in place by more democratic forces to gain power. This is playing out in Sri Lanka.

To understand this is to grasp the increasing appeal of the JO. Sadly, it is a political reality that was given life to by those in power. What I’ve flagged in recent weeks – the weaponization of social media, the gamification of elections – all stem from the inability to capture the spirit of participation in January and August 2015 and animate it over the longer term. This is a failure of political vision, just as much as it is a failure in political communication. The danger is now reflected in the data – electoral contests ahead of us are going to be perceived as much more divisive, with losers unable to countenance those who gain power, and those unable to regain power unwilling to countenance those in government. 2015 was as moment to rewrite the grammar of our mainstream politics, where the conjugation of divergent political opinion was normalized so that violence wasn’t the intended or immediate result of partisan difference.

Through true, it is easy to say the government has failed us. Truth is we have failed ourselves, no matter which party we vote for, and who we want to see in power come 2020.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...