Devoted to vote | Sunday Observer

Devoted to vote

19 February, 2023

“And so, we shall have to do more than register and more than vote; we shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we can respect, who have moral and ethical principles we can applaud with enthusiasm.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

After celebrating the seventy fifth anniversary of the changing of guards, which was branded as Independence, Sri Lankans are hoping and preparing to elect suitable people to run their local governing structures. We have been practising what is known as a ‘representative democracy’ where the representatives elected by the citizens of different wards of a locality, or of different electorates, will become the members of the governing body of that locality or the country respectively.

The idea behind the process is that the elected person, who is also one of our own neighbours, will represent the whole community he/she is representing irrespective of the number of votes he got or who supported and who didn’t. Democracy is more than just an electoral system or a set of Government institutions. It is an ideology based upon a well-understood set of values, attitudes, and practices.

These values, attitudes and practices may take different forms and expressions among different cultures, societies around the world. Citizens in a democracy have not only rights, but also the responsibility to participate in the political system that protects their rights and freedoms. As Plato has said: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”.

Political process

Even though we feel that we have been participating in the political process, the economic and political crises we are in today indicate that we have not being able to elect people whose virtues we can respect or who have moral and ethical principles we can applaud. It is not difficult to understand that something has gone wrong somewhere.

Either the voters didn’t know how to choose suitable candidates or most of the representatives the voters have been electing did not show their true nature prior to the election. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be where we are today as a country.

Studies about the psychology of voting show that identification with a political party is formed early in life and continues throughout adulthood and political campaigns rarely converted voters from one party loyalty to another. Researchers divide the factors that determine candidate preferences into two broad categories as ‘internal’ and ‘external’ to the voter’s mind.

Factors within voters’ minds include: i) predispositions that are in place before a campaign and ii) cognitive reactions to events during the campaign. External factors include: i) campaign events explicitly designed to influence the election outcome, ii) events that occur around the country and the world (not influenced by the campaign), and iii) the behaviour of individuals in the immediate vicinity of the voter.

Identification with a particular political party, ideologies such as capitalism or socialism, assessment of the incumbent’s performance, attitudes toward controversial policy options, perception of the candidate’s personality, and the emotions evoked in the voter’s mind by the candidate can be some of the examples of internal factors influencing the voter.

Media and attributes of people with whom voters discuss politics can be examples of external factors. Voters tend to count the likes and dislikes about each candidate in the process of making the decision, perhaps being unaware of the influence of the constant online updates they have been digesting through the whole process.

Studies have also shown that people who are knowledgeable about world affairs in general and the evolution of the political culture of their own countries tend to make the decision based on policy issues and ideologies.

Candidate’s personality

The rest of the people are likely to use party affiliations, approval ratings assigned by a third party, economic hardships of their own families, and the portrayals of the candidate’s personality by the media as the filters for their decision.

One of the main problems Sri Lankan voters have not been able to solve through the past seventy-five years is the selfish behaviour of the chosen candidates who try to achieve their personal goals using the privilege of being an elected member of the governing body, rather than being responsible for addressing the issues of the citizens they represent.

Change of power through electoral processes, especially in developing nations, usually creates environments in which the oligarchic elites can easily hijack the democratic system giving rise to a pseudo-democracy.

On top of all that the voters in such countries usually have to deal with political bribery, vote-buying or vote-trading, and vote-forgery. Elections in some of those countries have been the catalyst for conflicts and violence among different groups, political tension, and long-term polarisation.

There are three key stakeholders involved in a vote-buying process: candidates, voters, and the brokers. Introduction of generous welfare packages for the low-income households, tax cuts for the wealthy, and salary increments for the State sector employees are common types of vote-buying procedures incumbent governments use during elections.

Candidates are willing to even spend their own money since they know that there is a big economic potential in the contested position. The voter, usually the ones in the low-income category, is willing to accept the money or the goods given to them and trade their vote for that.

The broker, as brokers do in the whole world, gets commissions from both the candidate and the voter through all types of different methods. In some cultures, vote-buying is accepted as a part of the normal patron-client relation.

We may not be as in control of our own vote as we like to think. Studies show that voter preferences can also be swayed by factors ranging from how easily disgusted and fearful people are, to how they react to natural disasters. What we think as our conscious decisions are routinely influenced by unconscious thought processes, emotions, and prejudices.

This is why people in most countries experience bombardments of negative news about issues such as illegal drugs, robberies, rapes, and murders as well as fear mongering through racial or religious conflicts and through foreign and domestic terrorist threats during election campaigns.

Electoral democracy has come to such a low level in the world today making the voter a victim of the psychological warfare between candidates rather than an independent decision maker.

Edwin Edwards

A good example of that is the ‘Vote for the Crook. It’s Important’ bumper sticker Edwin Edwards (an ex-governor but a convicted racketeer)’s campaign used in 1991 gubernatorial election in the State of Louisiana, USA to win against the opponent David Duke, a world-famous white supremacist and a neo-Nazi and a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

One might feel sorry for the voter who had to choose between the ‘Crook’ and the ‘Racist’.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and sixteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]