The Parliamentary Election is only a week away, but what would typically have been a feisty last mile sprint has now slowed to a mundane shuffle. The campaigns of all political parties are struggling to find momentum, and nowhere is this more prominent than in the youth vote. The slowdown cannot be blamed only on COVID-19.
Even as far back as 2017, the Elections Commission had observed young adults, particularly those within the ages of 30-35, were refusing to register to vote, indicating a strong distaste for the prevailing political culture. Many urban youth in their 20s were also rejecting politics, because they feel it does not cater to their needs or work on behalf of their interests. One key reason could also be that there are few prominent new faces that are credible and appeal to youth, fuelling disinterest.
Successive Governments are responsible for this apathy. Term after term, politicians have come to power pledging to clean up the system, strengthen transparency, and battle corruption, but achieve few tangible results. In the last decade and a half, some Governments undermined democracy, while others elected on good governance and reconciliation platforms failed to deliver as well. The youth vote is estimated to be about 700,000 voters.
The Elections Commission has observed the drop in voter registration centred on those in the age group of 30-35, and covered areas like Colombo, Kotte, Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, Moratuwa, Kolonnawa, Maharagama and Kaduwela. Urban voters typically are the most independent, as they are usually more aware of issues and tend to have higher expectations of their representatives.
This population, though small, has a significant impact on the evaluation of a Government, often taking to social media and other platforms to showcase their views and demanding better performance from politicians. As a relatively younger component of the population, they tend to be idealistic enough to focus on social issues and impact on professionals. As such, they are stronger advocates of good governance and transparency, as well as policies that affect the working class. The expansion of this stratum of society pushes political discourse and expectations to a different level, and demands that institutional change is made.
This is a new challenge for politicians who have conducted themselves in their usual style for decades. For the first time, politicians in Sri Lanka are being questioned and criticised over their actions and conflicts of interest in real time, and action is demanded from leaders of political parties or top officials such as the President or the Prime Minister. No longer is it possible for them to hide behind party loyalties or excuses. They have to hold their party members accountable or face ridicule.
Overall, a higher political consciousness is good for Sri Lanka but people, especially well-educated and economically empowered young adults, are extremely important to drive forward accountability and demand better from their political representatives.
For this to become more effective, young adults need to be more engaged, not less, and need to foster a culture of ceaseless vigilance. Only such a commitment will ensure Sri Lanka finally achieves the good governance and development its youth so desperately desires.
For political parties, a radical change in the way they operate is necessary if they are to catch and keep youth votes.