Friday, December 11, 2009

Which way is the rural voter in the hinterland likely to vote?

I am asked this question time and again in conversations with my customers in Colombo on my delivery route as I lug bunches of thambili or shake the coconuts to ensure they are sufficiently mature for their consumption.
I will honestly say that it is a very difficult question to answer and more so at this Presidential Election. One must realize that in rural areas in villages, political patronage is a very important thing. I have known households who have lost Samurdhi (welfare benefits) for being on the losing side of an election. Job recommendations are given by the local Grama Sevaka(the state’s bureaucrat at village level) and recently a host of Samurdhi officers have been given appointments as Grama Sevakas. It is extremely sad that this position is becoming more like a political appointment and not one on merit, resulting in security of tenure only as long as your party is in power. No wonder then that with so much at stake, an entrenched bureaucracy will try to preserve the status quo at all costs.
As a broad generalization, people know which households are PA, JVP and UNP. This is referred to sometimes as the block vote, and the others the floating voter. Needless to say the block vote is also susceptible to permanent change due to personal circumstances where either a promise was not fulfilled or if a household determines that changing sides will help them get a benefit such as electricity to their home or such like. These examples of a highly politicized system affect the openness with which people are likely to speak their mind. I have referred to the two faced approach earlier where they may tell me something on the basis of what they think I want to hear, and not what they really think.
To explain this further, if they determine you are of a particular party they may sing praises to you about them, and if you make clear to the contrary that you are in fact fed up with them, the person in an instant is likely especially if he was lying initially to completely change his tune in an instant.
No wonder opinion polls will never work to gauge public sentiment. To get back to the original point, as General Fonseka is really of no particular party, there is absolutely no reason why one would want to openly stake allegiance to him, as they have nothing personal to gain from and a lot to lose. This will be the first election where either the result is a foregone conclusion, or one that is completely a surprise due to the different ground rules. The first time voter is also less likely to toe the household line, and be more independent depending on what they perceive as the opportunities or lack of open to them to achieve their personal goals.

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