Overcoming Cynicism

Daily News, 9 August 2016

The Elections Commission of Sri Lanka (ECSL) estimates that every year 2.5 to 3 million citizens become eligible to vote. Unfortunately however, only a small percentage of these youth voters actually show up to vote on Election Day.

This week as we celebrate International Youth Day on August 12, the ECSL along with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) will aim to tackle the serious challenge of getting more youths to actively take an interest in the political affairs of the country.

One of the main programmes of these efforts is a youth led steering committee which will commence a seven day national social media campaign from August 5 to 12 called #YouthVoteSL; to spread awareness amongst youths on their civic engagements.

Strengthening youth engagement

Nalaka Ratnayake

The Elections Commission noted that there was a significant gap that still existed between the number of youth qualifying to vote and the number that actually voted and this issue is to be tackled through strengthening youth voter education and engagement through a systematic manner.

The National Human Development (NHD) Report of 2014 under the theme ‘Youth and Development; Towards a More Inclusive Future’, more importantly has stressed that a lack of youth participation in state decision making could have disastrous consequences.

Youth participation in the civic and political life is important because youth should be part of finding solutions to the problems they face, rather than simply being passive recipients of support identified and prioritized by adults. Sri Lanka’s history is a testament to how suppressing, or how ignoring youth interest in their society and the world around them can end intense and violent stand-offs with tragic consequences for all concerned, especially young people,” stated the report.

To the polls

The primary objective of this campaign is to encourage all national youth led organizations, networks and societies to engage in creating public awareness through creative and innovative ways,” said Assistant Commissioner, Elections Commission Sri Lanka, Nalaka Ratnayake.

Ratnayake and his team at the Elections Commission also have for the first time in its history, created a Youth wing called the “National Youth wing of the Elections Commission, Sri Lanka” to focus on youth civic engagement.

We are currently working with the youth organizations to establish a Youth Wing to the Elections Commission. We have a four year strategic plan, and we have recognized youth, as a sector that we should address and engage with. We have developed goals and objectives to achieve, with regard to youth civic engagement,” said Ratnayake.

He further said that another objective of the national social media campaign is to develop for the first time in Sri Lanka, a national network of youth directly connected to the Elections Commission by calling youth to register online and offline.

Social Media Campaign; #YouthVoteSL

Applications to register to the National Youth Wing of the Elections Commission will be called from August 5- 12 and the forms are available online. The Elections Commission has set no restrictions on those who are willing to join the “YouthvoteSL.” All youth who are eligible to vote have been welcomed to join.

Naushalya Rajapakshe

“Once they are registered as individuals or organizations, the Commission will continuously communicate with them. There are 40 youth organizations that have joined hands with us now. Those organizations have contacts with youths from all over the country,” said Ratnayake.

He further said that all youth federations have been asked to follow three principles during their campaign; universality, clarity and the message should be clear and impartial. The youth organizations have the freedom to decide on ways to promote youth civic engagement and carry on their projects creatively and effectively.

As an award to the organization that conducted the best campaign, the Elections Commission will sponsor their organization on Facebook, he added.

Whilst the Elections Commission has requested all youth to participate in the promotion and encourage the voters on the youth civic engagement, they have also used this valuable opportunity to use these organizations to increase youth registration on to the electoral list, improve their level of awareness on elections, election law and the manner in which it is conducted.

This will be a neutral programme and measures are being taken to have programmes with the youth wings of the political parties as well,” said Ratnayake.

UN Youth Delegate 2015 and Convener to the #YouthvoteSL, Naushalya Rajapakshe is one of the participants of the social media campaign. She explained that on July23, 2016, the Elections Commission invited representatives from over 40 youth led organizations, ranging from Youth Federation clubs of Sri Lanka to Rotaract clubs, for a briefing on the project and how they could participate and win an award for the best campaign.

I am surprised by the response of the youths towards the initiatives that has been started. Already conversations regarding the voting rights and about their participation towards it has begun. Therefore we are looking forward to see more participation and involvement of youths in this campaign,” said Rajapakshe.

The Commission has also planned the event ‘Kites for Rights’ on August 12 to mark ‘International Youth Day’ at the Galle Fort, where many independent youth along with the officials from the Elections Commission and the IFES are expected to join.

Youth votes that get disfranchised every year

Even though 2.5 to 3 million youth become eligible to vote every year, according to Ratnayake, close to 300,000 amongst them also get disfranchised every year.

There are two main reasons for this;

One; some youth refrain from voting and two; it is only the citizens who complete 18 years of age by June 1, who can apply for voter registration. As we do not have an open register system like in India, we lose a large number of youth votes during the election. The election commission has to use the previous year’s register when an election is called,” said Ratnayake.

He recommended that the open register system needed to be implemented in Sri Lanka as well. If more youth are accommodated into the electoral process through greater awareness and amendments to the election register, it would create a lasting impact on the political landscape of Sri Lanka. This would also mean that politicians would need to continuously reinvent themselves to keep in tune with the expectations of the youth and what they want their country to look like in future.

Rajapakshe explained that the youth organizations were going to take these concerns as a petition to the President, Prime Minister, Parliament, Elections Commissioner and the relevant authorities, to amend the prevailing laws to change the youth voter registration procedure.

Participation of youth in civic and political affairs

The NHD Report of 2014 observes that,

Youth apart from exercising their right to vote, have very few take part in political decision making, or voice their opinion in the community. In the National Youth Survey of 2013, 72 percent of the respondents indicated that their primary source of engagement was through voting. Only a much smaller 5 percent appeared to be involved in direct activism.”

The report also brought to light that among the survey respondents, 37 percent said that escalating corruption prevents their participation in political and civic affairs, while 27 percent of youth identified politicization, 8 percent violence and 10 percent the inability to speak openly, as other major barriers.

Many youth are fed up with the current political scenario; they do not want to engage in voting. The Elections Commission aims to encourage youth to get rid of that mentality,” said Ratnayake.

Youth vote programme in Vavuniya

He also assured that the Elections Commission was committed to listening to the young people, engaging them in their work and providing them a platform to realize their full potential.

We never expected this sort of enthusiasm from the youth. They were fully involved. This is the first time they are engaging with the Elections Commission to do this campaign,” added Ratnayake.

He also hoped that through this campaign the youth would get the right message about politics, the changes they could bring about in the country as they are taught about voting for the right person.

Politics is not something bad, it is the politicians who have made it look so. We should always remember that it is we who appointed them to be our representatives. We are accountable for what they do,” noted Rajapakshe.

She highlighted that even though youth represent different fields and wanted to make a change in the country, the first thing that they need to understand was that it was the law makers and Members of Parliament who had the final say in it.

We should make it mandatory for politicians to have educational qualifications and a retirement age. Not many know all the details about it, which means that they are not aware of the current system that needs to be changed,” she said.

Rajapakshe added that greater participation of young people in politics would reflect youth sensitive policy formulation in the country, making young people an integral part of policy formulation and this campaign would create a huge network between the youth from all over the nation.

Does your vote matter?

This urgency for youth political involvement however, has thus far not been felt by the youth of Sri Lanka as of yet. According to the UNFPA publication on the population of Sri Lanka (2015), 71.5 percent of young people in Sri Lanka were largely inactive politically and only 1.9 percent were involved in any political work and 1.3 percent in trade union activities.”

Dinuk Pathirana, is one youth who does not want to exercise his voting rights given the current political situation.

The idea of democracy is limited, people vote to appoint their representatives and once they become so called politicians, the people who voted for them are left behind. The people have no say after that. Many politicians are unqualified and even when they make amendments to the acts, I wonder whether they know what it is.”

He also highlighted the fact that youth are not made aware of the political system.

Only the students who do political science know about the political sector. Students need to be taught about it before they become eligible to cast their votes. Uneducated voters will end up voting for the unqualified politicians,” he added.

Mallika Richard, a 27-year-old, voted for the first time during the last Presidential elections and is now disenchanted with the system.

I did not exercise my voting rights for more than five years. I never had faith in them and I always felt that my vote will not make a big change.The politicians do not fulfill what they promise before the elections,” she said.

She said during the last Presidential election she saw how youth were involved and the social media campaigns made a huge impact on the history of Sri Lankan politics.

Many people expressed their personal views and opinions about the contestants and that was a good platform for youth to get independently engaged. However, even before the ink applied on my finger on the day of the election faded, the hopes and beliefs that I held for the good governance government faded away,” she said.

Between such despair and hope however, lies the pragmatic need to get more people who have a stake in the future of this country, involved in the making of it.