All is ready for 16 million people to go out and vote today to elect the next president of Sri Lanka. The road to get to this point has been fraught with many compromises, negotiations, and trade-offs. The functionality of democracy in this country is not perfect but it has persevered and it has given the people the choice of selecting their next leader. This opportunity cannot be missed or misused.
Many have been the debates that have taken place, both formally and more frequently on social media over the past few weeks. This is a positive development as the public should be dialled in to the democratic process and should have vibrant conversations on the relative merits of different candidates and their manifestoes. This process is now largely completed and it is now up to voters to use their precious franchise as meaningfully as they can, prioritising what they feel is in the best interests of the country and all citizens.
One positive that has been highlighted by both the Elections Commission and polls observers is that election law violations have been less than what was seen in the run up to the Presidential Elections of 2015. However, there has been a massive uptick in misinformation and fake news campaigns, which observers have flagged as a serious concern in this and for any future election.
Within this misinformation tsunami was a virulent strain of hate speech that remains deeply problematic to the ideas and ideals of democracy. It is imperative that stronger action is taken within a legal framework and with the involvement of all stakeholders to address and mitigate these developments so that institutions are strengthened and democratic space protected.
Fighting this spread of misinformation, fake news and hate speech is an integral part of professional journalism and this effort needs to be scaled up with the help of larger society to ensure that election campaigns do not deepen existing rifts between communities and divide people even further. The fourth estate is an important part of a democracy and its healthy function essential for the growth of freedom and protection of all rights.
The franchise gives the power to all citizens to mould the future they wish to see. Sri Lanka has many challenges before it, but arguably the two most important is fixing a limping economy and ensuring the right of all communities to live peacefully. Both of these tasks require long term thinking, planning and implementation, which Sri Lanka has traditionally struggled with.
Grappling with an aging population, deep structural economic issues, high debt, and a divided population will not be easy. There are no quick fixes and citizens will have to remain engaged with the democratic process even after this vote to ensure that the best possible future for all Sri Lankans is built.
Sri Lanka’s stronger democratic credentials are a tribute to the institutions and gate keepers that have worked tirelessly to maintain and expand the democratic space in Sri Lanka over the last few years and this needs to continue even after 16 November. Credit for this situation, arguably cannot be claimed by one political party, and ideally must be acknowledged as an overarching achievement that many have contributed to and is, more than anything else, a Sri Lankan accomplishment. Democracy lives or dies by the people.