Sri Lanka’s youth are unlikely to vote for the old guard in Parliament

WILL THEY COME TO VOTE? – Young voters sick of old faces in Parliament may not exercise their franchise

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s youth, many of them first-time voters, who gave Gotabaya Rajapaksa a huge majority at the Presidential election are unlikely to turn up at the polling booths for the Parliamentary General Election, observers say.

The November Presidential poll saw a record-breaking turnout when compared to the elections held in the past 20 years with a turnout of 83.72%.

But when it comes to Parliamentary Elections the turnout has never passed 78% in the last 20 years. And, according to an informal opinion poll we conducted on Facebook, out of a sample size of 150, nearly half (47%) of people in the ages between 18 and 26 said that they will not vote at the upcoming elections for various reasons.

The number of eligible voters for the Parliamentary Elections is 16,263,885 with 31.95% being youth voters and 1.67% first-time voters.

The two most common reasons why they will not vote are the loss of faith in politicians and politics as a whole, and a disinterest caused be seeing the same old faces contesting again.

ELECTION FEVER – Crowds greet Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa as he arrives at a venue to speak in Kandy /PMD

Young people want politicians who can make a positive impact

Out of the many responses to our survey, Isuru, a 22-year-old who is a student of a state university said that this would be his only chance of voting for a parliamentary election as a youth.

“The next time I vote, I will very likely be working or maybe married, so how I see society will definitely be different then. But what matters to me is today. Therefore, the youth, including myself, need to be conscious because the next time we vote, we will have a change in civil status, having a job or sometimes even having children of our own. So, it is important to ensure that the officials we elect into the Parliament today will have some sort of a positive impact for our future in the next 5 years,” he said.

Considering the old faces returning to the Parliament, he said there must be a retirement age unless there is a limited number of senior members based on votes.

“We have too many old people, and the younger generation that comes forward is either a son or a nephew of these older politicians. Nepotism is used as a marketing tool. You say you are this person’s someone and no one cares about anything else,” he said.

Dilan, a 23-year-old who works for a private company as a marketer said that he will not vote at the Parliamentary Election as he has lost confidence in politicians. He said after winning the election every candidate will work on building up their legacies instead of working for the people.

He said instead of scolding the politicians after voting while being deceived by them, it’s good to not vote at all.

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Not surprised at the sentiments expressed by youth – Uyangoda

Political Scientist, Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda, said that he was not surprised by the findings from the sample survey conducted through Facebook.

He told EconomyNext a sizeable percentage of first-time voters who voted in large numbers for President Rajapaksa at the Presidential Election might not vote at the Parliamentary Elections because one of the reasons why young people chose Gotabaya was that they saw him not as one of the “professional” politicians.

“But in the Parliamentary Elections, all the candidates are professional politicians from all parties including the candidates from the party the President represents,” he added.

He also said that the sample survey indicates a growing political trend in Sri Lanka among the youth where there is a loss of confidence, disillusionment and loss of faith in the class of professional politicians of all parties.

Moreover, he said that party politics is changing in Sri Lanka and has changed dramatically, so youths wouldn’t have to move away from party politics since old-style political parties do not exist anymore.

“Political parties are more like a broad coalition of various social groups. Now the SLPP represents that new tendency under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa, there are a variety of social groups, ideological groups there are extreme Sinhala Buddhist nationalists as well as Muslims, Tamils and Catholics,” he said.

Uyangoda said that the political parties are no longer what they used to be and added that he doesn’t see there is any political party which can attract youth voters who are disillusioned with the political class.

“But, Gotabaya Rajapaksa can be an exception because he contested the Presidential Election without identifying himself with the old political class. But once he is in power he would become one of those again, so that distinction with him and the politicians the young voters saw at the last Presidential Election will disappear,” he said.

Further, he said that he doesn’t think the youth would be attracted to the things promised to them in the election manifestos put forward by the parties, as people do not read the election manifestos and most of them are just rhetoric.

When it comes to the topic of more youth representations, the main four parties who are at the forefront of the election speak about it in their election manifestos.

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Main parties chasing the youth vote

Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) manifesto for the General Election under the theme, ‘A strong country satisfied people’ promises 25% youth representation in all elected bodies such the Parliament, Provincial and Local Council.

National Peoples’ Power (NPP) who are going with the same manifesto presented at the Presidential Election last year under the theme, ‘Hope of a nation’ also talks about increasing the quota of youth representation among peoples’ representatives and appointing an ombudsman who will intervene when it comes to matters related specifically to youth.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which is also going ahead with the manifesto presented at the Presidential Election, ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’, states 25% of nominations for local government elections will be reserved for youth, while steps will be taken to increase the relative share of youth representation at the provincial council and parliamentary levels as well.

However, the election manifesto of the United National Party (UNP) does not mention increasing the quota of youth representation, instead, it states: “We no longer have the same old faces that have stagnated during the past several years. Space and opportunity have been provided for a new generation to lead the party down a fresh path. As demanded by the public, a large number of professionals and party activists are contesting the upcoming election.”

Speaking to EconomyNext, the Propaganda Secretary of SJB youth movement, Samagi Tharuna Balavegaya, Rasika Jayakody said that the biggest concern many, including the youth, have faced due to the COVID-19 outbreak in the country is the loss of their jobs and livelihoods, and even those who are working are not getting paid enough due to pay cuts.

Talking about the mindset of the youths between the two elections, he said that they have understood the gravity of the mistake they made on November 16 as the youth predominately voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Presidential Election.

“They’re determined to correct their mistakes and vote for a new political front which is led by Sajith Premadasa,” he added.

With regard to reaching the youth voters through campaigning, he said that they have conducted a number of grassroots meetings,

“Campaigning is very rapidly moving into the digital space, we have to be present on social media, we have to be vibrant on social media. We are already doing that and it is the best way of reaching out to the youth voters,” Jayakody, a former journalist said.

Without confining their campaign to social media, they are also going to villages and engaging directly with them by having youth meetings across the country and giving them the opportunity to engage with them by having one-to-one dialogues.

Speaking about young and new representatives in the elected bodies, Jayakody said they need to see young faces in the Parliament, a sentiment also shared by many people in the country.

However, he said since the SJB nomination process was handled in a very hurried manner as there were issues within the UNP, they didn’t have the ideal youth representation for the Parliamentary Election.

“But now Sajith Premadasa has signed a charter where they pledge with the youth movement to ensure that we get a quota of 25% SJB nominations in all upcoming elections,” he added.

It’s better irrespective of the party for people to vote for new and young faces and give them an opportunity to prove their worth.

“We need to see how people go about it, but I also understand that change cannot be achieved overnight. It’s a work-in-progress so it has to be pushed by everyone.”

Speaking for the youth wing of the governing SLPP, Milinda Rajapaksha told EconomyNext that he does not see any change in the mindset of the young people during the last eight months between the Presidential Election and the upcoming Parliamentary Election.

“They have reassured the support which they gave to President Rajapaksa because of the way they managed the Coronavirus. So it looks like some of the young people who supported Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake are considering moving towards supporting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” he said.

He also said that the main concern the youths have is the post-COVID-19 development, how the country’s economy is going to revive after the pandemic.

Further, he added it is very evident that a higher percentage of youths are still getting their information from television so their campaign is more focused through television rather than social media.

Speaking about whether new or old faces should be in the Parliament, Rajapaksha said that it must be a combination of old and new.

“We can’t expect only new Parliament members to run the country or old Parliament members to run the country, it should be a mix between old and new,” he said.

However, he said that there is a gap between giving nominations and winning the election, as most of the parties have been very genuine about giving nominations.

“The problem is that those young people do not have enough support and resources to win the election. This is a different issue altogether that all the political parties should address after this election,” he added. (Colombo/July27/2020-sb)