Elite Mobilization, Symbolic Politics, and Presidential
Elections in Sri Lanka
Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz
Democracy and Elite Mobilization
In democracy, the vote plays a key role. Politicians and leaders, either as individuals
or in teams, sometimes both, fiercely compete for votes. While some of these
politicians present rosy social and economic promises and policies during the election
period, so-called nationalists employ the hostile - or what political science strategically
calls symbolic politics - to maximize votes. Whatever policies/tactics politicians adopt
as an election strategy, their aim is to win votes.
It is not an evil practice to offer promises or policies to the masses, because th system
pushes politicians to plead to the masses at least during the elections. The key
question here is: do politicians honor their major promises? History proves, and
political science researchers, claim that politicians' and party leaders' only major aim
is power, and once they attain that goal, they merely give up the voters who voted
them into the office and find ways to serve their masters, those who have the ability to
apply great leverage on the entire system and on the ruling leaders. This is a
general trend in the world, regardless whether one is observing Western or non-
Who then benefits from this so-called people's democracy? If not the masses- whom?
The one word answer is the elite! Though democracy proudly speaks of people
power, the sad truth is that it does not offer real power to the people. As in non-
democratic systems, democracy authorizes a tiny minority to taste power in the name
of the people's sovereignty. Thus, the real winner of every election is the elite, not the
so-called sovereign masses.
As influential political sociologist Joseph Schumpter (Capitalism, Socialism, and
Democracy, London: 1961) argued,“democracy is a political method and democracy
means only that the people have the opportunity (at election time) of accepting or
refusing the men who are to rule them.” And political scientist Robert Dahl said that
elites carefully plan and approve every single key decision of the state. Robert Dahl
(Power, Pluralism, and Democracy, Boston: 1967) in his conference paper presented
to the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in 1964 said that
“the key political, economic, and social decisions” are made by “tiny minorities,” and “it
is difficult-nay, impossible-to see how it could be otherwise in large political systems.”
This helps explains how tiny minorities (elites) have an influential role in the process of
Another big target of elites is the bureaucracy which implements state decisions.
Although the establishment of modern bureaucracy helped to discourage direct
interference from the political class, it is still very vulnerable to the influence of ruling
political leaders whose policies and decisions are formed by elites. In the form of
political chiefs or ministers, bureaucracy comes under the control of politicians. These
politicians generally control all the activities of the bureaucracy such as policies,
recruitment and implementation. When the state allows politicians to interfere in state
institutions' business, the bureaucracy loses its spirit of impartiality, and what follows is
institutional decay and conflict.
In Sri Lanka, minorities, particularly the Tamils, think that state institutions discriminate
against them in favor of the majority Sinhalese because state institutions are
controlled by the Sinhala politicians, who formulate policies and influence the state
institutions to win the Sinhalese votes. In sum, when politicians attempt to control
state institutions, not only do the masses lose their liberty, but society itself will be
destabilized if the marginalized lose trust in those institutions. This is the reason why,
as early as 1861, J.S. Mill warned of the influential individual’s role in the bureaucracy.
According to Mill, liberty needs to be safeguarded against the tiny elites. But elite
domination would prevail as long as the system fails to offer real authority and
influence to the masses.
Literature points out that democracy offers sovereignty to the masses to elect the
government they think best. This proves the classical democratic political formula that
government is of the people, by the people, and for the people. Government in a
democracy might be of the people, it might even be by the people, but, in my opinion,
it seldom is for the people because the major beneficiaries of state decision-making
and implementation are elites, NOT the masses that democracy theoretically claims.
Elites, in my opinion, do not bother much about the form of government, i.e.
democracy or illiberal state. Elites would be comfortable if the system accepts their
aspirations and delivers their needs. In other words, the more the state satisfies the
elites, the stronger the elites support the state. This explanation suggests that elites
do not believe in democracy. They pretend to be interested in the public and engage
in deceptive patterns of behavior in appealing for public support.
Understanding the Sri Lankan Presidential Elections
Economy: Reform or Revolution?
Let me bring Sri Lanka’s major presidential candidates, Premier Mahinda Rajapakshe
from the UPFA, and Opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe from the UNP, into this
theoretical context. Both candidates maintain that they have different ideologies and
approaches to liberate the country from the current political, social and economic
instability, which is a dire product of the five-decades-old democratic experience and
Mr. Wickramasinghe openly identifies himself as a good friend of international elites,
who recommend a neo-liberal recipe for the disease brought about by the incumbent
government. On the contrary, Mr. Rajapakshe, with his charismatic style, is vigorously
attempting to show a picture to the masses, particularly non-northeastern rural
Sinhalese, that he is a member of the oppressed Sinhalese masses.
Mr. Wickramsinghe’s election manifesto attempts to comfort ordinary people with
colorful promises. In Sri Lanka, many villagers and a strong section of the urban
people suffer without a decent life. This unhealthy situation’s dire result has been the
growth of Southern-based Sinhala extremists, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s
two brutal rebellions (1971 and 1987-89) against the state, and the ethnic minority
Tamils' violent mobilization led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against
the state in the northeast (1971- ).
In my opinion, both the radical JVP and militant LTTE are a revolutionary product of
the political and economic policies and system Sri Lanka has been carrying since
independence. Mr. Wickramasinghe seems to have forgotten the roots of the current
social instability. He thinks that his neo-liberal economic magic will give social justice to
the millions of poor peopleoin the island. I do not have any evidence to believe that
Ranil’s neo-liberal economic policies would rescue these suffering poor people.
Is that thus suggested that Mr. Mahinda has a real recipe for the crisis ordinary Sri
Lankans face? Mahinda’s economic polices are not clear. His manifesto attempts to
convince the poor masses about an optimistic future, but his so-called middle path
approach, that is to say a combination of a liberal and a nationalistic solution, is not
Studies point out that small and/or weak states will have to face tough international
leverage, thus, they will surrender their own policies to win international support. Also,
a strategically located country like Sri Lanka will receive tough international pressure
concerning domestic affairs because external forces have their own interests in the
country. Mr. Rajapaksha is well aware about this fact, I assume. He may simply be
thinking that he can retract all his nationalistic economic approaches once he is voted
into office, and will then be able to satisfy the real masters of the state. I would say, if
Rajapakse shares this sort of crafty mind to win the votes of the poor masses, then
the state will face more instability in months to come and will lose even more of its
legitimacy. The more the ruling party faces crisis, the more it will lose legitimacy and
the deeper the country will sink into social instability.
Ethnic Question: Liberal Peace Vs. Hostile Emotional Politics
With respect to solution of the ethnic conflict which is an excellent product of the five
decades of democratic government in Sri Lanka, the candidates submit very different
sets of proposals. Mr. Wickramasinghe, man of neo-liberal magic, openly supports
peace with the LTTE. His pro-peace stand should not be interpreted that he loves
peace and he sincerely hates to see minorities suffering. In point of fact, his pro-
market economic polices require peace. Literally, economic progress will not succeed
in the absence of social stability.
What Chinese experiences confirm is that foreign (western) investors’ main concern is
a country's stability, because investors pour their hard earned money into a particular
country to make a profit. Thus, they need and require stability as a precondition
before they invest. Ethnic civil war weakens the country’s stability and gives a dreadful
signal to investors who are drawn to cheap labor with a high literacy rate. This is not a
literal political science explanation of how to understand the situation of post-colonial
states, but it helps to understand Sri Lanka’s precarious reality. Therefore, Mr.
Wickramasinghe pretends to be a friend of minorities who have been marginalized by
the Sinhalese political elites in order to help create social and political stability.
However, Wickramasinghs’s eagerness to explore a political solution based on a
federal state structure through the concept of internal self-determination is fascinating
and a right step to restore minorities', particularly the Tamils', trust. The more the
state gives space for a political solution in the context of wider political autonomy, the
less the country's chances of facing ethnic civil war. One may raise doubt over the
real intention of Mr. Wickramasinghe’s peace effort, but it would be a crime if the state
denies peace with justice to the Tamils and other minorities who think they are victims
of the Sinhala elite’s mobilization to gain power.
Despite the fact that Wickramasingh tries to extend his pleasant peace message,
minorities, particularly the Tamils, seem still doubtful about his ability to deliver as he
promises. They have very slim hope on Wickramasinghe because they think he needs
a Southern consensus to introduce a new constitution or to amend the current one in
order to deliver a federal solution. Consequently, his current promises may face a fate
similar fate to that of the Banda-Selva Pact of 1956 or th Dudley-Selva Pact of 1965
due to Southern Sinhala opposition. Tamils think that the Southern Sinhala polity,
which denied the tsunami rehabilitation mechanism or PTOMS this past June through
the judiciary, will not do any justice to them; hence, Wickramasingh is just pretending
to be a peace messiah to win the presidential race.
Mr. Rajapaksa’s election strategies verify that he employs what political scientists call
symbolic politics to win votes, particularly the Southern Sinhalese votes. Political
researchers consider these tactics a central strategy of Southern Sri Lanka political
elites to maximize Sinhalese votes. Recent political studies on the Sri Lankan conflict
argue that Sri Lankan Sinhala politicians outbid their opponents on anti-minority
issues to maximize the Sinhalese votes (A.R.M. Imtiyaz, 'Conflict and Constitutional
Solution,' Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, January 2005, Neil DeVotta, Blowback:
Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, 2004).
Rajapakse's anti-Federal peace solution and radical Sinhala-Buddhist symbolic
messages confirm that he tactfully applies symbolic politics to attract Sinhalese
Mr. Rajapakshe may think he can retract his symbolic promises once he wins power.
However, recent political studies on outbidding express that, when politicians employ
symbolism such as religion and/or ethnicity to maximize votes, those politicians or their
successors find difficulties in withdrawing their promises. For example, in Sri Lanka, S.
W.R.D. Bandaranayke, a man who introduced Sinhala chauvinism into Sri Lankan
politics, found himself unable to control the emotions he had unleashed. In 1959,
Bandaranayke was assassinated by an extremist monk who thought Bandaranayke
had made the first step to compromise with the country’s Tamil minority.
Furthermore, Mr. Rajapakshe’s electoral alliances with the JHU and the JVP
fundamentally scare and dishearten the minorities. Large sections of the Tamils,
Muslims, and Christians believe that the JVP and JHU are essentially anti--minority
and any government controlled by them would not proffer any political consensus on
Sri Lankan minorities' concerns are very similar to that of minorities living in other
ethnically divided societies. When the state and its institutions act in favor of particular
ethnic group or majority ethnic group, minorities become more distrustful of the
system and of politicians representing the majority ethnic group. It seems Mr.
Rajapaksha is very positive about winning at least 90% of the Sinhalese vote, but the
history of Sri Lanka Presidential elections denies Mr. Rajapaksa’s confidence.
Conclusion: End of Instability?
Both Mr. Wickramasinghe and Mr. Rajapakse have the backing of some minorities and
minor parties and have signed electoral pacts with them. The parties which entered
into electoral pacts with the major presidential candidates declare that the purpose of
entering an electoral pact is to ensure the rights and prosperity of their respective
communities, and to end the prevailing social and political instability.
I would be glad if these electoral pacts were sealed in the best interests of the
common masses. But world reality and literature on electoral pacts make one cautious
about this sort of explanation. Political leaders and elites cite the interests of the
masses for their every policy and action, including making electoral pacts with their
counterparts. If that is the case, one may have valid reason to ask why the masses
are still suffering and instability is still at large.
With respect to ending political instability, the famous political scientist Samuel
Huntington (Political Order in Changing Societies, New Haven: 1968) warned that
instability will occur if political reform lags behind socio-economic development. But Sri
Lanka’s current political and economic instability, in fact, is a result of political reforms
the British Raj introduced in 1948: elites and politicians in their quest for power have
employed symbolic politics or ethnic outbidding which has eventually led to the ethnic
conflict and instability in the entire state system.
Both Presidential candidates confidently believe that they have policies to offer new
hope to the masses. I think it would be naïve to think that the results of the November
17 Presidential election will bring magic changes to lift the millions of masses out of all
One has to bear in mind that politicians always offer promises, and they formulate
promises in order to win elections. This is not to suggest they totally ignore all the
major promises once in power, again they will deliver some if they think these
achievements will help to win next the elections or consolidate power. In fact,
politicians are only, in Anthony Downs’s words, “motivated by the desire for power,
and income…their primary objective is to be elected” (An Economic Theory of
Democracy, New York: 1957).
The key question of politics is who gains? It seems elites always win and masses are
placed at the receiving end. For that reason, I can safely maintain that the role of Sri
Lankan voters on November 17 is to help produce a government for the best interests
of politicians and elites. Masses can gain some, but the results of the election will not
much help to erase the current sorry state of their life and the current social instability.