The Joint Opposition’s Referendum

Katrathu Kai Mun Alavu; Kallathatu Ulahalvu

‘What you have learnt is a mere handful; What you haven’t learnt is the size of the world’ is a loose translation of what Chola age Tamil poet Avvaiyar wrote. The verdant verse reminds us that what little we know must not blind us to how much more there is to learn. This is a really tough sell when a country is heading into a referendum around a new constitution, and when polling data suggests how little the majority of voters, whose opinion matters the most, actually know about what they will be voting for, or against. The point has been made before, repeatedly. The outcome of a plebiscite is never really about the question(s) asked and more around what voters feel going into the ballot box. The outcome, as with any electoral process really, is more of an emotive response than an intellectual engagement. There are many aspects to this, chief of which is the fact that a population reeling under the cost of living, a catastrophic drought and simply unable to afford a basic basket of food, is not one that can be meaningfully engaged around the nuances of constitutionalising power-sharing, rights, religion or the nature of the executive. If the government is serious about meaningful constitutional reform and a referendum to see it through, it has its work cut out and with no guarantee of success.

Polling data released last week by Social Indicator, the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, provides data driven perspectives into the nature of the multi-faceted challenges that lie ahead. Let us be very clear about this. The polling data re-affirms what many suspected. The whole process of vexed partisan negotiations, constitutional blueprints, drafting and necessary political compromise aside, the grief this government faces over an electorate that is unaware of and apathetic towards constitutional reform is almost entirely one of its own making. There is, from the Prime Minister to the UNP writ large, between the PM and the President, and also between the President and the SLFP, a near total breakdown in coherent communication and concrete collaboration, around clear, concise messaging regarding constitutional reform. What has ailed government since January 2015 isn’t going to be fixed in the near future. This is a matter of serious concern, as brought out by the polling.

Fieldwork for the survey was conducted from 14th to 19th March, with 1,992 respondents in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages, across all Provinces. The resulting insight into the public perceptions around constitutional reform are nothing short of damning.  Asked what the overall view of the government’s performance since January 2015, there is a clear disconnect between the Northern and Southern Provinces, and between the Tamil and Sinhala communities. This in fact is a common thread throughout the responses to survey questions, highlighting the inescapable fact that Sri Lanka continues to be sharply divided by geography and ethnic identity, even or especially, post-war. Keeping in mind Sri Lanka’s electoral register and the density of voters in each Province, the nature of the problem is clear. Amongst the Sinhalese, 48.7% think the government’s performance is bad or very bad, compared to 6.2% of Tamils who think the same. Nearly 80% in the Northern Province thought the government’s performance was good. Yet, it’s just shy of 30% in the Southern Province.

The data suggests the almost complete outsourcing of voter education around constitutional reform to the JO, or other spoilers. Over 55% note that the government is very unsuccessful or somewhat unsuccessful in informing people about the constitutional reform process. The same percentage thinks that publicising the content of discussions within the Constitutional Assembly and its sub-committees around constitutional reform is very unsuccessful or somewhat unsuccessful. Revealingly, despite the Public Representations Committee’s islandwide consultations over 2016 (with over 2,500 in-person submissions, 800 over email, 150 through fax and 700 submissions through the post or handed in) the poll flags that 31.4% across the country believe the government has been very unsuccessful in obtaining citizens’ perspectives about what should be included and what should change in the new constitution.

Even if they don’t know about the details and status, the number of those who say they are aware of the current constitutional reform process has increased from October last year. On the face of it, this is a good thing. But when we dig further into the data, as other commentators have also flagged, this awareness seems to spring from negative publicity, misinformation and disinformation around the reform process. For example, nationally, those who think Sri Lanka needs a new constitution has dropped from 33.9% in October last year to 23.5% in March. Those who think the current constitution should endure with some changes has increased from 33.6% in October 2016, to 38.9% last month. The appetite for, and interest in a new constitution, is noticeably diminishing. Likewise, support for the complete abolition of the Executive Presidential system has declined from 35.7% in October, to 30.1% in March.

There is a stark divergence in opinion around the fundamental nature of the state, especially between the Northern and Southern Provinces. Nationally, 53.4% want explicit mention of the unitary state in the new constitution. 57% of those in the Southern Province concur, along with over 73% in both the Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. Conversely, just 13.7% in the Northern Province agree. Secularism, and its constitutional expression, is another fault line. Nationally, 70.3% state that Buddhism should be given the foremost place in the new constitution. 85.3% of the Sinhala community, unsurprisingly, concur. Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, just 9.4% of the Tamil community are of the same opinion. Federalism, in the public imagination, isn’t very popular. A mere 13.2% nationally want it ingrained in the new constitution. In the Northern Province, support for federalism is just over 63%. In the Southern Province, it’s a paltry 7.2%. An underlying structural inequality coupled with divisions based on geographic loci and ethnic identity endure, creating for government the challenge of addressing what is not a new problem – a deeply divided Sri Lanka.

Given the near complete absence of political will to address these challenges which have been studied, flagged, fleshed out, warned against and yet ignored for decades, the government faces the unenviable task of championing a vital referendum, when most don’t even want it. Nationally, 66.2% think there are more important issues than constitutional reform and transitional justice for the government to address. In Sabaragamuwa, the figure is as high as 96.8%. On the other hand, just 13.8% in the Northern Province agree. Unsurprisingly, those who continue to suffer structural inequality and racism the most, want meaningful reform urgently. But the data reveals a more complex picture – suggesting that the disinterest in constitutional reform and transitional justice stems from economic impoverishment. When asked what issues were more important to respondents, the answers given were all related to cost of living, unemployment and other economic indicators.

Avvaiyar verse holds a vital warning for government. If we arrive at a referendum this year – and there is no guarantee on this score – voters will respond with what they believe at the time the new constitution holds for them. Simpler, emotive messages, by definition the least accurate and oftentimes the most retrogressive, will hold sway over academic, intellectual arguments in support of more progressive, meaningful constitutional reform. In other words, the JO is winning public opinion by producing more content, more volubly and more frequently than the government cares to counter. The data from October and March are not just snapshots of public opinion. They demonstrate key trends. Given the clear indications, availability of data and what is an avowed interest in pushing through constitutional reform, one at least can be assured the government will do what it always has in the past to secure a yes vote.

Absolutely nothing.


First published in The Sunday Island, 9 April 2017.


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