The deterioration of a country’s political culture can be measured by how much regard its citizens have for the democratic process. Elections are an integral part of democracy that not only elects the people’s representatives but also provides an evaluation for politicians. Recent trends observed by the Elections Commission show that young adults, particularly those within the ages of 30 to 35, are refusing to register to vote indicating a strong distaste for the prevailing political culture.
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. After the previous government undermined democracy over nine long years the new Government was elected on a platform of good governance and reconciliation but is largely seen as having delivered a disappointing performance over the last two and a half years.
The Elections Commission has observed the drop in voter registration centred on those in the age group of 30 to 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 from their representatives. They are also less likely to expect handouts or Government jobs and therefore cannot be easily swayed as fringe voters might be.
This population, though small, have 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 strata of society pushes political discourse and expectations to a different level and demands that institutional change is made, rather than ad hoc measures that are usually rolled out at the tail end of a term to get votes.
This is a new challenge for local politicians who have conducted themselves in their usual style for decades. For the first time politicians in Sri Lanka are being questioned and criticised on their actions and conflict 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. Perhaps the best example of this change was demonstrated when former Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake was forced to resign from his post even though a criminal charge was not levelled against him and he was not legally convicted of any wrongdoing. Consciousness of a conflict of interest was enough for the public to demand action and politicians had to comply.
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 would ensure Sri Lanka finally achieves the good governance it so desperately desires.