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Educating The Voter

| by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( November 19, 2014, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) In the national press in Sri Lanka and overseas journals and papers there is much discussion on upcoming elections. The merits and demerits of candidates are addressed with verbal mudslinging and sycophantic praise, as the personal interests of the debaters fluctuate from one position to the other. With all this fervour and contention, I have seen no one address the most fundamental and key issue in this equation - how educated is the voter to make a rational and well informed choice?

The United States - a hot bed of electoral frenzy always, is a startling example. The Huffington Post of 18 November records that " approximately one out of three U.S. Citizens can name all three branches of government. Meanwhile, an equal amount can't name any of the three. Only 24 percent of 12th graders scored proficient or above on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam, the second lowest of any measured subject (history was the lowest). The U.S. ranks 139 of 172 democracies in terms of voter participation".

One does not expect every citizen of a country to know the doctrine of separation of powers or the rule of law. However, it is reasonable to expect even the most bucolic in the boondocks to instinctively know what the social contract theory is. Thus, to an incumbent leader the question may be posed: What did you do for me? did you look after my interests?; make my life and those of my family better?; give my children future prospects for a life without want?

There is a popular saying that a politician thinks of the next election, but a Statesman thinks of the next generation. If one gets rid of an incumbent leader, can the ordinary voter expect anything better from a new leader who comes with promises? Will those promises be kept?

A meaningful short story explains the philosophy of elections: A poor man, who lived in one room with his wife and four children, and who could only afford to feed his family once a day, goes before a wise leader and says: "learned Sir and revered leader, I live in one room with five others in my family and we have no decent life, and no money to feed ourselves...can you advise me as to how I could better myself so that my family and I can live a more comfortably? The wise one says: "buy a goat". The poor man heeds the advice and buys a goat which he takes home. A few days later he comes before the leader crying: Sir, I am still in the mess I was, and the goat is defecating all over the room. Our lives are now more miserable. The learned one says: " sell the goat" which the poor man does.

A few days later the man returns to the leader beaming and happy. He says: " Sir, I did as you said and sold the goat. Now we are so happy and our life is much better than it was. Thank you for your advice."

Another facet of voter education is making the voter aware of the civilized way a democratic election should be carried out - not with brickbats and stones but with collective understanding, forbearance and civility. When Mr. J.R. Jayewardene and his United National Party was elected with a massive majority in 1977 his first words addressing the nation were (in Sinhala) " in ancient Greece, people used stones and graphite to inscribe their vote at the election and make democracy work. In our time people use stones to destroy the election". The Electoral Knowledge Network has this to say: "Voter education provides the background attitudes, behaviour, and knowledge amongst citizens that stimulate and consolidate democracy. During an election, this education will ensure effective organisation and activism by citizens in support of parties and/or causes, behaviour by citizens that is appropriate to a peaceful election, acceptance of the results, and tolerance of competition and opposition".

The trouble with democracy is its self serving parochialism and the monotonous regularity in which it has evolved as a condescending social construct between the affluent elite and the poor masses. No one doubts that democracy is an ancient concept, but not many would know the disturbing truth that ancient Greek and Roman civilizations practiced a democracy that was deeply reliant on their sustenance through slavery and an expanding slave population that they needed to control. In ancient Greece the Athenian government which was governed “by the people” excluded many categories of non-citizens such as slaves, women, foreigners, prostitutes and others of questionable morals and birth from the process of “democratic” governance. William G. Gardner, in his book “The Trouble with Democracy” makes the clear statement that democracy is just a technique for deciding the distribution of power in society. In other words, it is a tool for deciding which individuals and institutions would be sharing the fruits of power by coercion. Gardner calls democracy a theory of power where once an election is over, there is nothing said about the rights or freedoms of those who voted for the losing party, except that they have the right to grab power the next time in the same manner.

The voter should at least know this fact, if not through education, by experience.

Perhaps all of us - voter and candidate - would do well to heed the words of Socrates: " Whom do I call educated? First, those who manage well the circumstances they encounter day by day. Next, those who are decent and honorable in their intercourse with all men, bearing easily and good naturedly what is offensive in others and being as agreeable and reasonable to their associates as is humanly possible to be... those who hold their pleasures always under control and are not ultimately overcome by their misfortunes... those who are not spoiled by their successes, who do not desert their true selves but hold their ground steadfastly as wise and sober -- minded men".

What any State in the world needs is a decent and honorable leader whom all of us can trust. Can we ask for anything less?

The author is a former senior legal officer in the United Nations system.