Are young politicians the solution to toxic political culture?

  • Young people express mixed feelings over proposal to include under-35s in nomination lists

BY Sumudu Chamara

The need to change Sri Lanka’s political culture for the better has been under discussion for a long time, although with little results, and the country’s political leadership has, from time to time, come up with various suggestions to achieve this objective.

The most recent such suggestion comes from Opposition Member MP Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, who submitted a Private Member Bill to amend the Parliament Elections Act, No. 1 of 1981, in order to increase youth representation in elections.

The relevant gazette stated that when submitting a nomination paper, each political party or independent group should ensure that not less than one-fourth of the total number of candidates to be nominated for an electoral district, and not less than one-fourth of the total number of candidates in a district list, comprises youth candidates. This is, provided that the Election Commissioner, by notice published in the gazette and with the call for nominations, specifies the number of youth candidates to be nominated on each nomination list, in respect of each administrative district. It further said that in the event a political party or an independent group fails to fulfil these requirements, the respective nomination paper shall be deemed null and void, and shall be rejected by the Returning Officer.  

The gazette interpreted “youth” as an individual of 35 years of age or less on the day of the calling of elections by the Elections Commissioner.

Speaking with The Morning, several youths discussed whether this proposal can be useful in achieving anything tangible, especially as far as the country’s status quo is concerned, and in what way this can be beneficial in utilising the youth’s potential.

Past vs. future

Many of the youth who spoke with The Morning commended the above mentioned proposal, adding that strong youth representation is a necessity given the state of the country’s economic and political situations. The change the country needs, they opined, will only come from youth.

In this regard, Kalana Chanaka Munaweera, a 29-year-old member of a youth club, said that Sri Lanka is almost always late when it comes to adjusting to modern needs, and that the country’s youth’s potential had been ignored for an unjustifiable period of time. 

He added: “To move forward as a country, it is essential that new ideas and new people are utilised. However, what Sri Lanka has been doing, for as long as I can remember, is trying to reinforce archaic and outdated ideas coming from elders. Look at our Parliament and those making policy decisions. Most of them do not have new ideas to match modern-day challenges, and most of the time, they try to continue ideas that should have been left behind a long time ago. We have only a handful of MPs and policymakers we can call young.”

He noted that even though experiences and past lessons that elderly politicians can bring to the table are crucial in making decisions, especially policy and legal decisions, that is not at all sufficient, and that innovation is equally important. Decades of experience, he said, do not necessarily constitute a vision for the future. 

“The fertiliser issue that jeopardised the entire country’s food security is a good example. Politicians and policymakers who thought that their opinion about whether Sri Lanka should go organic is all it takes to implement the organic fertiliser plan, went ahead with what they thought was right. However, they forgot the most important part, i.e. innovation. They did not care about how it affects food security, the agricultural economy, and a plethora of factors that come into play when shifting farmlands that have adapted to chemical fertiliser for decades to organic fertiliser. 

“Had they consulted new ideas, with which those who possess new knowledge can help, this disaster would not have befallen the country. In my opinion, it is the notion that decades of experience that politicians and policymakers have is the only knowledge that is required to make policy decisions that put the country in this situation. They have conveniently forgotten the fact that times change, and that their experiences do not necessarily form a vision for the future.”

New ideas vs. new politicians

However, 31-year-old private sector employee R.A. Dhanushka, was of the opinion that merely increasing youth representation will not make a difference, unless young public representatives represent the interests of the people and come up with innovative changes. 

“What Sri Lanka needs in order to get out of the prevailing economic crisis is new ideas, not necessarily new people. I understand that most of those who are in governing bodies have proven that they are not capable of coming up with innovative ideas. However, that only means that Sri Lanka should focus on new ideas, not just new people. 

“What benefits will the country get if the young people we elect do not have what it takes to change the political culture? At the same time, Sri Lanka’s political culture is a cesspit of corruption that is strong enough to corrupt even those who genuinely want to serve the people. If they survive, they will serve us; but, if they do not, they will just be younger versions of the corrupt politicians we have.”

Meanwhile, 27-year-old public sector employee Kamala Fernando (name changed on request), opined that even though increasing youth representation in politics would be immensely helpful in getting governing bodies to pay more attention to the challenges faced by the country’s youth, it is crucial to analyse what is expected from the aforementioned proposal. 

She added: “Increasing youth representation in politics is what they are trying to do. But, that is not a properly defined goal. The real goal is what we expect by increasing youth representation, or, in other words, what will they do differently?”

Fernando said that blindly filling governing bodies with youth or members of any particular socio-demographic group for that matter, is not the solution to the issues the country is facing at present. She opined that proper solutions can come from any person or group that knows their abilities and responsibilities.

Going against political culture 

Meanwhile, 32-year-old former member of a human rights organisation Keran Perera (name changed on request), saw this move as a progressive one, adding that it is high time that Sri Lanka changes its outdated political culture, which she said is a process that should be led by the youth.

“We need new ideas, and the youth have the biggest potential for coming up with new ideas. They have updated knowledge, they have been exposed to new technologies, and they are more conscious about what is happening in various parts of the world. Most importantly, Sri Lanka has youth that have not been exposed to narrow political agendas and greed for money and power. They should come forward, and to give them that opportunity, the country’s political leadership should be humble enough to admit that they do not know everything.”

She noted that doing that, however, would be an arduous task that calls for a total overhaul of Sri Lanka’s political culture.

“Giving the youth more opportunities in elections can be challenging in several ways. The main challenge is getting elderly politicians to give youth more opportunities, regarding which elderly politicians show a great hesitancy especially because it involves political power. The best example is the ongoing spate of protests asking President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to leave. The two leaders seem like they would do anything to remain in power instead of resigning. 

“In this context, even if more young people were elected or started actively engaging in politics, I do not think that their ideas would be given their due place, at least for the foreseeable future. Another challenge is the voters’ hesitancy to accept or support changes in the political culture. I must mention that compared to the situation that existed several years ago, thanks to the economic crisis, voters are much more conscious about changing the political culture. 

“However, despite all the protests against and anger towards the politicians that put the country in this situation, I think that voters are yet to understand the true gravity of the consequences of electing politicians based merely on popularity rather than on policies, vision, and character. In this context, I think that even if more young people contested at elections, they will not receive adequate votes. It will take a long time to change this situation too.”

Perera noted that due to the said reasons, increasing youth representation in politics is an endeavour that requires a great deal of open discourses and campaigning, in addition to legal or policy changes. She further pointed out that even though Sri Lanka has been trying to increase female representation in the Parliament and in politics, the said practical challenges have hindered that process, and that in this context, increasing youth representation too will be a bigger challenge than it appears to be.

As some who spoke with The Morning noted, while this seems to be an attractive proposal, what is expected to be achieved from it in the long run is a concern that should receive attention. However, there is no doubt about the fact that if Sri Lanka wants to change its political culture, new ideas, new people, and new systems are crucial, and the youth can play an important role in this process.