The appetite for gullibility in Sri Lankan voters vis-à-vis election promises, and election pledges, has not diminished despite getting their fingers burnt over and over again – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
A couple of years ago, I told one of my friends that the word “gullible” had been removed from the Oxford Dictionary. He immediately checked on it and found that the word still existed and, within minutes, realised the subtle intention of my statement.
Unlike my friend who cottoned on to it quite quickly, the appetite for gullibility in Sri Lankan voters vis-à-vis election promises, and election pledges, has not diminished despite getting their fingers burnt over and over again. It is on the back of this assumption that the presidential candidates of the two leading parties have, once more, taken the “safe” gamble of making election promises which, they themselves know, are poppycock and belong more in ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ than in an election manifesto.
The audacity with which these politicians make these promises despite their awareness that we, the voters, know that these promises are just rhetoric and are unlikely to be delivered even at a 25% level, confirm my belief that these politicians think of us as nincompoops who are unable to distinguish fiction from fact, a thought which makes my blood boil in the same way as yours is boiling, right now!
Based on our knowledge of Sri Lanka’s national product, production capacity, productivity and financial resources, these promises are unaffordable, impractical, misplaced and absurd unless the country comes across a hitherto unknown treasure and/or stamp out, very drastically, very widely and in a manner never seen before, latent inefficiencies.
As per the known, the promises are hollow in every respect. Every right-minded citizen knows that what Sri Lanka desperately needs is a leader who can inspire a shared vision and give leadership to wide-ranging structural reforms in transforming the country’s tottering economy to a solid and sustainable state. An environment which avails everyone an equal opportunity, rewards performance and minimises entitlement.
In this light, the immediate need is a style of leadership which blends benevolence with a strength of purpose, focus and firmness. Not a Santa Claus and certainly not short-term, vote winning, unsustainable gimmicks. In an economic sense, we will be living beyond our means and ruining the future of the many generations after us if the predominantly entitlement culture was to persist.
The bravado with which these promises are made, and the ease with which the candidates describe how they will be financed beg the question as to why – if it can be done now and whether it is easy or not –the current and previous governments did not implement them. The simple answer is that the country did not, and does not, have the largesse and the means to fund these promises, at the prevailing levels of recurrent revenue and expenditure.
So how will these promises be funded? The alarming conclusion is “the candidates have no clue and they could not care”. They want to grab power by hook or by crook. Not the power to develop the country but the power to enrich themselves and take a free ride on the gravy train.
The “win at any cost” recklessness which evidences the insatiability of this hunger for power gives rise to massive risks. Risks not just in terms of the medium to long-term economic sustainability of the country because the promises will have to be financed by heavy taxation and borrowings, but also in the form of a potential violent backlash of a dissatisfied citizenry unable to control the frustrations of unsatisfied expectations arising from un-kept promises.
As we all know, harsh tax regimes negatively impact investment in capacity and capability building. This is a situation which a developing country like Sri Lanka can ill afford. And, there is a limit to deception and a limit to one’s patience in tolerating deception. Our politicians are playing with fire! As Abraham Lincoln so aptly stated: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” It is the wrath of the people who tire of being fooled, that I fear.
So, despite these obvious dangers, the potential ignominious effects of a public outcry if promises are not delivered and the inevitable staining of their image, dignity and self-respect, why do the presidential aspirants, in particular, and politicians, in general, continue resorting to such sleazy tactics?
The quick answer is that they believe the potential benefits more than outweigh the costs. Not the benefits to the country but the benefits to them. The rewards more than outweigh the risks. The encouragement of such thinking is the gullibility of the Sri Lankan voters. The politicians want to make hay while the sun is still shining. Politics, today, is big business thriving on our gullibility.
A political career pays
As a politician, even if one considers just the published incomes and perquisites, you will find that a political career pays more than most jobs and that too without having to acquire any special knowledge or expertise. Further, if you look at it as “Income per unit of effort” or “income per unit of output delivered to the public”, it will certainly be in the upper quartiles! This, too, without considering the undisclosed perks which add enchantment to the norm and give delight to the recipient.
A study of the 225 in Parliament will reveal that only a handful of them possess the vision, the leadership traits, values, skills and the genuine passion to make Sri Lanka great. Just like the shareholders in a private organisation, the public will not begrudge “payment for performance”. Sadly, the performance of the politicians, particularly in the past three decades, is well below the promised/agreed key performance indicators. But, still, the same bunch carries on. It is just a reasonable performance which the public seeks. Not superman like feats.
The consistent lack of it over the years can only mean that the subject politicians have no care for the constituents. Yet, at election time, these same politicians are all “milk” and “honey” and are paragons of virtue and humility. But, once they are elected, they are far from being the “servant leaders” they have made the public believe they are and, thereby, the public expect them to be. We, the public, are willing fodder to their cannons of deceit.
Said differently, the public, that is you and I, are downright gullible. Just take a moment to reflect. The government invests using the taxes paid by us and through borrowings. These borrowings create liabilities which the current and future generations must service, once again through direct and indirect taxation. So simply put – you and I invest. The political party in power, and a few individuals who are the key movers and shakers at the subject time, personally benefit from our investments in a big way.
Going by the actual achievements in the last 71 years, the country has, if at all, benefitted just fractionally from the mega investments she has made. The “hangers on” of the key individuals also benefit in some form, shape or size. By and large, there has been little pleasure for too much pain. For the politicians, it is a zero-sum game. It is, therefore, no wonder, that politicians want the current system to continue and, as individuals, they want to continue well past their “sell by” date. Not because they love the country. But because there is money to be made and the intoxication of power is hard to give up.
Viewing politics as a Business
Viewing politics as a business; the return on investment in the industry of politics outstrip, by far, the returns on investments in most other industries. The “political” inflows include visible and invisible, quantifiable and non-quantifiable, benefits. It will be hard to deny that the two leading political parties in Sri Lanka are just for-profit businesses. They certainly are not “not-for-profit’ businesses.
The “ideological manifestos”, crafted, designed and packaged to pluck at your heart strings and uplift your dreams and expectations, are delivered with great emotion. The delivery is embellished with great pomp and pageantry. By and large, the messages consist of, in the main, baseless, impractical, unaffordable, short-term promises which appeal to the target markets.
The rhetoric, cleverly composed by communication experts, contain assurances which worm themselves into the mind space of the gullible voters. The objective is to capture the largest possible market share of voters at election time. In this way, the gullible are brainwashed with ease.
In a business, the larger the market share, the more profitable is the business. In politics, the aim is to capture the largest share of the vote at the moment of critique. The promises and assurances, driven by self-interest, often over-shadow long-term national interests. The games of deceit also include instances where the party shamelessly defends the corrupt and the incompetent elements in their membership despite overwhelming evidence of incompetence and/or skulduggery.
Whilst the extent of such tolerance is directly proportional to the number of followers the miscreant enjoys and/or the miscreant’s material means, the party will, invariably, justify its actions citing the need to preserve unity which it says is so essential in the greater national interest. But on the other hand, the party is quick in punishing those members who publicly criticise unethical and immoral party actions or party actions which conflict with their individual beliefs, ethics and integrity. All this, we swallow very casually with no thought to their underlying motives and repercussions.
Notwithstanding the angle of our view, judging by the enormous monies which parties and individuals are willing to outlay, we can safely assume that Politics must be a great business to invest. It is very conservatively estimated that the monies outlaid by the ‘big two’ in the past month, alone, in both the hard and soft forms, are around Rs. 3 billion each. The costs of the world-renowned consultants and experts hired to advice on the public relations, marketing, advertising, communication and digital strategies are enormous. No costs are spared in engaging the best.
More often than not, party members are incentivised to attend rallies in order to provide the optics of strength and support. The optics of numbers is an important brainwashing tool. Additionally, in many instances, the travel/transport expenses of party members are met. The list is unending. But the fact is that the party hierarchy and the key benefactors deem such expenditure worth the potential benefits accruing to them, collectively and personally.
Political system in Sri Lanka
The political system in Sri Lanka remains, and will continue to be, the major barrier to solving our nation’s pressing economic challenges, rising economic inequality and overall quality of life. The matter of grave concern is that, unlike in most other industries, the rules of competition in the industry of politics are controlled by the 225 in Parliament.
They have an obvious conflict of interest. They have a patch to protect. Despite their ostensible rivalry, the public is increasingly aware that mode of encounter between the opposing parties is a sort of a “you scratch my back and I will reciprocate” type of interaction. They want to preserve the status quo as long as possible.
Let us take a simple example; Parliament is yet to introduce legislation to prevent simple crossovers. Publicly, the big two parties agree that unmanaged and unconditional crossovers of members of parliament are not fair by the voters who elected them in the first instance for some virtue, expertise, skill or other goodness which they saw in them. Although clauses/mechanisms to prevent such crossovers appear in the near final drafts of many proposals to amend the constitution, they are excluded from the approved versions. I can only conclude that both the major parties prefer to retain the crossover ability as a tool of opportunistic advantage.
The politician knows that even if he is disadvantaged today, he will benefit from it someday in the future. So the politician’s thinking is: “Why kill the goose which lays the golden eggs?” They are confident that they will have their turn to benefit out of its magical properties some day in the future. For the voting public it is fait accompli. A case of “heads they win, tails we lose”.
The cycle of political power is very similar to the shape of the economic cycles. There are the peaks and troughs for each of the major parties. So it is just a matter of exercising patience. Preserving the system and awaiting the opportunity. It is evident that the lack of transparency, and ethics, in the industry of politics has undermined, and is undermining, our democracy. The politicians are manipulating the minds of gullible voters. In fact, when you get around to a deeper analysis, you will realise they are choosing their voters, instead of the voters choosing them.
Healthy political competition
Healthy political competition will, no doubt, result in the subject leaders, and the parties they represent, better delivering the desired outcomes we desire as voters. Whatever the yardstick we use, it is apparent that the outcomes experienced, so far, by the populace have not been in line with its expectations. Therefore, we, the voters, need to think more deeply about healthy competition and what that means.
We need leaders who are not disproportionately influenced by party politics. Leaders who can offer better value. Selfless and trustworthy leaders who are accountable. We need a new system of governance. Since end 2018, being the end of the failed constitution coup, various civil rights movements have attempted to enhance the awareness of the need for a new political system and have proposed alternatives with the support of like-minded followers. Unfortunately, these initiatives have not created enough ground swell.
Additionally, the movers behind these movements have also fallen prey to the allure of “what is there for me?” syndrome. They have deviated from the original recognition of a selfless fight for a cause. Unless we take the “I” and “Me” out of the purpose/goals of these efforts, future attempts to change the current political system will bear no fruit.
Healthy competitive politics must facilitate rivals and customers doing the best they can in making the nation better. Despite the doom and gloom painted afore, we must never forget that we, as voters, have the means, however difficult it may seem, to fix our political system. Most importantly, we must fix it. If not this time, the next time.
Changing the political status quo
As individuals, we may feel that changing the political status quo is insurmountable. As goes the Chinese proverb, “The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying small stones”. Together, if we are determined, anything is possible. As a first step, we must think, and behave, differently in our societal roles.
Democracy involves more than just voting every five years. We must be the constant pressure on all our governing structures in ensuring that they deliver what we want. This must range from the parliament promulgating just laws to the state entities providing us services and to the municipal councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas catering to our daily life.
We must facilitate, strengthen and show our unity in ensuring that everyone in our fragile society, irrespective of caste, creed, race or religion, are treated fairly and receive what they need in the context of a reasonable society. If we all breathe, eat and live “democracy”, then, I sincerely believe, we can rebuild the societal trust that our politicians are working so, deliberately, to destroy. It is our disunity which facilitates their selfish motives. As I said earlier, the 225 are in it together in preserving the current system for their self-serving benefit.
We are, probably, too late, this time, in changing the system through the ballot this time. But when you vote on 16 November, at least, ensure that you preserve your freedom to bring about change in the future. “And there abideth Hope, Wealth and Freedom. But the greatest of these is Freedom.”