A tweet by Ruwan Wijewardene, in response to one by South African cricket Dale Steyn, captured what after the electoral results of 10thof February and even after the restructuring of the UNP, remains a problem – with party and government writ large.
Steyn, in a tweet that went viral, was deeply complimentary of what he saw in Colombo. The visible aspects of development, from the last time he was in the country as far back as 2006, were flagged along with how the roads were clean and the parks were green. Perhaps bereft of good news from their fellow countrymen and women, the tweet had generated at the time of writing nearly 9,000 likes and 1,000 retweets. Lots of cringe-worthy responses replete with hearts, kisses, animated GIFs also ensued. The State Minister for Defence also retweeted Mr Steyn’s original, flagging the current Mayor of Colombo, Rosy Senanayake, with two emoticons of clapping hands. The tweet was meant to be read as Mr Wijewardene congratulating MsSenanayake for all what Mr Steyn had noted. “Can’t wait to see the whole bloody lot of them Twitter clap themselves to electoral oblivion” was one response received when I circulated privately, framing in terms not entirely fit for print, Mr Wijewardene’s tweet and what it suggested was the mentality of the UNP’s top brass. To the reader, it may be unfair and unkind. MsSenanayake assumed office a few months ago. She certainly cannot yet be credited with anything good or held accountable for all that is bad about Colombo. The tweet was perhaps more the reflection of personal friendship expressed in a public manner over social media, and to be appreciated as such, without reading too much into it.
But the frustration I felt, shared by many others, was informed by the study of the UNP’s tone-deafness to public sentiment and optics. In Sinhala, over Facebook and Twitter, one can study content directly from government (from MPs and public officials), favourable to government (by those not elected to or appointed by it), directly from the joint opposition and its allies, as well as conversations unfavourable to or deeply critical of government (by those who aren’t card-carrying members of the JO yet partial to its ideology and perspectives). Each of these individually and taken together reveal a disturbing discontent. The government is in the eye of a cyclone, thinking all is calm and well, yet blithely unaware of what’s menacingly around them. Keep in mind Sri Lanka’s electoral youth bulge, with those between 18-34 constituting nearly a quarter of the total number of those eligible to vote. Keep in mind that on 10thFebruary, nearly 1 million first time voters were eligible to cast their vote. This percentage and number will only grow in months and years to come. We have a demographic which is introduced to and engages in politics, including the production of partisan perspectives, primarily over social media – a fundamentally different, fluid, power dynamic to what the core readership of this newspaper know and are used to around how they interact with politics, elections and elected officials.
This is not some fad.
The larger paradigm shift in politics, happening elsewhere in the world as much as it is in Sri Lanka, is called “parties without partisans”, a phenomenon that goes to the heart of the continuous campaign mode engaged by the JO since January 2015. It is also why the popularity of the present government is in terminal decline. The French politician Maurice Duverger in the 1950’s classified political parties as being cadre, mass or devotee centric. A cadre model was essentially and unashamedly elitist (and by extension, historically almost always exclusively male in senior membership), which during electoral contests, especially as universal franchise expanded, tried to seek support from a larger membership – in ever-widening concentric circles. Mass parties grew the other way around, rooted in social movements like labour unions, and growing to a degree where a few from the movement went on to represent the values and ideals of the group in legislative bodies, and other power blocs. Sri Lanka has political parties that bear the features of both. It most definitely has the cult of personality, which Duverger classified as devotee centric political parties. Here, the fate of the movement or party is pegged to the charisma of an individual leading it. Social media deeply favours populists – those who with charismatic credentials galvanise public support through trenchant opposition to the status quo, and the flagging of a glorious, sovereign past.
Post-2015, Sri Lanka has seen, through the physical manifestation of politics as well as its digital contours over social media, the rapid dissipation of hope around the coalition government, the hoovering of anxiety and apathy by the JO through populism and, within the gravitational pull of the JO, distinct yet strategically aligned orbital narratives that promote an unashamed return to a racial and religious purity, devoid of what’s projected as the false trappings of liberal democracy. This last narrative domain addresses what is a real loss of identity and belonging amongst youth, that counter-intuitively grows the more they are connected to social media and interact with likeminded. The politics discussed here is not one that is exercised, necessarily, through franchise. The legitimacy of franchise itself may be constructed as false and contested as one that benefits a status quo inherently unfair, unjust and discriminatory. Hence, the more conversation there is around politics on social media, the more apathy and anger may grow without any electoral resolution. All this and more suggests that if the government and other political actors are not continuously, meaningfully connected to social media discourse, they already risk misreading public sentiment. Electoral and democratic consequences will follow.
Which brings us back to Mr Wijewardene’s tweet. It embodies succinctly, the sheer disconnect he, his party, his leader, and this government has with a tsunami of anxiety, anger, fear and resentment amongst young voters. The word is used consciously, for in Japanese, tsunami loosely translates into harbour wave, where sailors at sea came back to find their homes and shoreline devastated by a phenomenon that had passed beneath them. Sri Lanka’s electoral shoreline is 2020. We have already seen the first wave in February. The farcical restructuring of the UNP by shuffling old men and incompetence around has worsened the UNPs’ appeal. The President is his own brand of pathos. Suffice to say, and without any exaggeration, that when visualised as line graphs – capturing the production of and engagement with content produced in Sinhala alone on Facebook or Twitter, over the past year – that which is against or deeply critical of government appears like a Himalayan range, with content from and partial to government flatlining in comparison.
But I suppose as long as we are tweeting at friends in government and happily clapping on Twitter, all will be well.
First published in The Sunday Island, 15 July 2018.