To those waiting to board

By Dinouk Colombage

The recent days and weeks have seen a gradual increase in the number of people applying for passports. According to official statistics, the number of applications for the one-day service stood at 1,500 people. Queues were seen forming outside passport offices around the country, made up mainly of youths (18-35 years) and young families, who are seeking out employment opportunities overseas.

There are a host of reasons for why these people are choosing to move to a foreign country; the political instability in the country, the weakening economy, falling employment opportunities, rising racism, and overall decline in the quality of life in Sri Lanka. Pre-Independence saw the country in the higher echelons of Asia as one of the most sought-after destinations for expatriates. While politics has always been at the forefront of life, the opportunities offered within the country continued to overshadow the undesirable image that the political stage held.

Today, it appears as though politics has taken over every aspect of life, and with it the negative perceptions of politicians and political parties are now permeating throughout Sri Lankan society. For the youth in the country, the political journey of this island nation no longer holds their respect nor their interest. In the 1990s, discussions in social settings would invariably focus on politics, from the policy decisions being taken by the government of the day, to the seedy gossip that followed those who raced around the country in Pajeros surrounded by security. However, in the 21st-century, discussions about the political stage no longer feature in households. A sense of resignation and disgust accompany politicians, leaving the citizens focused on their own lives.

It is this growing indifference to the leaders of the country that can now be seen through the rising number of citizens looking to leave the shores of Sri Lanka.

The rejection of the country’s “political elite” is displayed through the lack of surprise or anger towards the deplorable actions of the politicians. In recent weeks, several controversial decisions have been taken, including the appointment of firebrand Buddhist monk Galagodaaththe Gnanasara to a presidential commission tasked with implementing the concept of “one country, one law”. In previous years this decision would no doubt have drawn widespread condemnation of the Government, amounting to public protests. On this occasion, barring a few social media users, the rest of the public have taken this appointment in their stride, choosing to focus on their own daily struggles.

As Sri Lankans, and especially youths, prepare to leave Sri Lanka for “greener pastures”, it has thrown the spotlight on our society’s weakness. That being the citizen’s decision to disengage from the country’s political and societal trajectory.

At the 2019 presidential election, the voters elected an individual who was viewed as having emerged from outside the political spectrum. In Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the youths, who overwhelmingly supported him, saw a technocrat capable of “getting the job done”. In the two years that have since passed, the President and his Government have suffered successive failures in their endeavours. Cost of living is on the rise, employment is at an all-time low, allegations of corruption are once again on the rise, politicisation of independent institutions is the norm, and a clear post-Covid-19 recovery strategy is absent from public view. With all this piling up against the Government, the public’s faith in the system and their own choice has been shaken.

However, before resigning ourselves to a fate we deem unacceptable, self-reflection is necessary. At the 2020 election, the public solidified the President’s position by handing him a near two-thirds majority in parliament. However, the change to the political actors, which began at the 2019 presidential election, was not completed. Of the 225 members in parliament, only 79 (35%) are first-time members, and only five members were under the age of 30 at the time of the election. While the discourse amongst the public has been on the need for new, young, and educated politicians to come forward, it would appear that the words of the voters were not followed up with their action.

Following internal divisions within the United National Party (UNP), the Grand Old Party fielded only 13 individuals who were part of the previous Government, with the rest of the candidates comprising new members. However, mustering only 200,000 votes at the election certainly raised eyebrows amongst those who assumed new faces was what the public desired.

Now, with the failings of both the Government and the Opposition on display, the emphasis is once again on the need for new, educated professionals to enter the political spectrum.

For those young individuals who wish to participate in the political process in the country, there are numerous obstacles. However, the biggest roadblock that exists, in fact, originates from the general public. As highlighted previously, the perception around politicians is at an all-time low. Sadly, this has translated into a concerted avoidance of politics by the youth of the country.

Covid-19 has set societies around the world on a new trajectory. The pandemic, which paralysed the world for a better part of a year, opened the eyes of the people to the failings of their leaders. In America, voters took a greater interest in the process, which was demonstrated through the record voter turnout. Traditionally, the US has seen voter turnout numbering in the high 50% bracket. The 2020 election saw over two-thirds of the eligible voters in the country cast their ballot, a 7% increase against the 2016 election. The active engagement in politics continued through the year, with a record number of new candidates winning a host of local government and state elections in the country. In Germany, since 1998, voter turnout has been on a downward trajectory. However, this year’s elections showed that once again, engagement in politics was on the increase with a higher turnout recorded as compared to the 2017 elections.

In Sri Lanka, elections have always boasted of high voter turnouts. The public considers it their duty to go and vote. Unfortunately, their commitment to their civic duty appears to end once the ballot is cast. It is often seen that a step back is taken following the closure of the polls, with the public choosing to allow their elected representatives to run the show.

In 2021, this disengagement with the political stage has finally caught up with the citizens of the country. The decisions taken by the leaders of the country appear to have no bearing on the general well being of the public, and thus the public have decided to abandon ship.

It is now the public that must take upon itself the task of completing the change in trajectory, which was embarked upon in 2019. While the President and his Government have failed, this failing is not due to the public’s desire to see new faces in politics, but rather a mix of the failings of those individuals and the incomplete nature of the change which was carried out. For the Sri Lankan public, the opportunity has now arisen to overhaul the political environment in the country. With the politically established having failed, the space is widening for new, young, and educated individuals to come forth and stake a claim.

A change within a country can only be achieved if the desires are followed up with discernible action. In the case of Sri Lanka, the time is upon its citizens to take the reins and see through the changes that they demand.

(The writer is a media and communications consultant and a United National Party [UNP] Working Committee member)