President’s Gama Samaga Pilisandarak
By Dr D. Chandraratna
Trying to place President’s Gama Samaga Pilisandarak (PGSP) in a scientific perspective of public policy making is timely. One of the stated objectives of the Presidents election manifesto, ‘Vistas of Prosperity’ is to create a village-centered development of our predominantly agriculture-based rural economy. The President has pledged to achieve a four-fold objective: a productive citizen, a happy family, a virtuous, disciplined and just society and ultimately a prosperous country. A laudable project worthy of comment and analysis.
President Rajapaksa believes that to achieve this broad objective, he must clearly identify the problems faced by the rural population, which constitutes about 70% of the population in Sri Lanka. It is well known that people in rural areas have suffered for far too long as national development goals are stymied. Given the fact Sri Lanka has an executive presidential system of government it must be understood that decisions that the executive President makes supersede all other decision centres. It is no secret however, that political decisions are tied up with ideology, party politics, group interests, vote banks and the survival of regimes. But in this paper we will leave the ideology and rhetoric aside and examine only the facts, evidence, ends and means only.
Ideal methods of policy making; the end points of a continuum
At the outset it is necessary to contextualise the exercise within the science of policy making in public affairs. Policies are a web of executive decisions made to overcome problems that people in society face in their day-to-day lives. These can be arranged on a continuum from the complex to the simple. At the complex end lies the oldest model, based on the theory of decisions expounded by the management guru Herbert Simon; it is called the Root Method or Comprehensive Rational model, where policy decisions are made after a laborious weighing of all alternative courses in terms of optimum results, costs, and many other value positions. Obviously, this is absolutely necessary in national issues and problems which consume a vast amount of national resources and are costly in nature. Infrastructure projects such as transport systems, communication systems, river and waterways, energy supplies etc., fit in with the comprehensive method of policy making. Governments issue white papers and appoint commissions, task forces and professional consultant bodies before such are undertaken because of the vastness in costs and liabilities. The most important fact is that the country as a whole must realise the value and necessity of such vital state projects. In Sri Lanka, it is a matter of regret that some costly projects such as the Mattala airport and the Hambantota Port have come under criticism because the national implications have not been professionally argued. The author is of the view that both were valuable projects in their own right and if only the relevant Ministry at the time had followed though the correct professional procedure in public policy-making, the projects may have had a different outcome.
In other countries, projects of that magnitude go though extensive weighing of alternatives, open professional debates and university research centres arguing about costs, benefits and opportunity costs of the nation’s limited resources. Science has to be put before ideology because haphazard interventions in national policy or grids or systems can be deleterious.
The opposite method at the other end is called incremental policy making, for as the name suggests it is limited in scope and applicable to small time projects with little or limited national implications. These appear solutions to residual ills, minor dysfunctions of national policies, which need remedial outcomes. Hence, such measures are called disjointed, piecemeal and also having incremental outcomes, benefitting a few at the margins. The fact that they are disjointed invites numerous criticisms. But their positives will be explored first.
This is the method of policy making that the President has taken up as a speedy solution to the numerous problems faced by the rural peasantry in Sri Lanka and his entourage has selected the most backward of villages as the points to touch on.
In fairness to the President, it must be stated at the outset that we do not consider this as a ploy on the part of the President to escape the political overload that he has inherited from years gone past. Ever since the gradual dissipation of efforts by governments since Independence, to kick-start the village economy as the mainstay of the national development strategy, the dividends have been sub-optimal. The colonisation schemes, village expansion schemes, financial assistance to tenants were only partially successful. We do remember the 10-year plans, five-year plans, Operations rooms, Planning Ministries but the results have been poor. The President will succeed to the extent that his advisors keep him informed of the successes, and especially failures of the efforts in the past. The President’s officials must not be a bunch of ‘yes men’ leading the President up the garden path.
Transparency in respect of both means and ends is the path to success. People are not unaware of the fact that politicians are in the habit of recommending such incremental stop-gap policies as a way out to avoid political embarrassment, hoping for a temporary respite. Bottom-up policy making has its positives but its limits and usefulness must be properly grasped.
President’s Gama Samaga Pilisandarak –– the context
Before we evaluate what the President has so far addressed, we must note the following facts about our broad policy field. Sri Lanka has nine provinces, 25 districts, 318 divisions and 14,022 Grama Niladari areas or villages. The country, consisting of 14,022 villages, is demarcated into 196 electorates. For 196 electorates there are 225 Members of Parliament to advance the welfare of all 14022 villages. Given the electoral system these members of Parliament represent not electorates, but districts. They are elected on the proportional representation system of voting. Hence no one at the Centre is responsible, theoretically at least, for any of the problems in any particular village.
Having identified that the PGSP is located at the incremental end of public policymaking we need to put it in an analytical perspective.
It is fair to surmise thus far the President has in his encounters identified and sometimes attended to some of the following major issues identified by the President inter alia: shortage of lands and water for agriculture and houses, unavailability of deeds for lands, inadequate health and transportation facilities, shortages affecting school and other educational issues, inaccessibility to drinking water, elephant-human conflicts and difficulties in marketing.
We are also aware that around 30 precent of the total households in rural societies in Sri Lanka live below the poverty line. Moreover, nutrition surveys conducted in the recent reveal a high prevalence of malnutrition among those in rural areas, which may have been caused by chronic poverty.
There are particular issues in some villages, which we will leave out in this paper.
The Analysis: Plusses and Minuses
I will use a famous textbook in policy making by Hogg and Gunn (1984) to follow through with the Presidential initiative. Let us start with the positives of the PGSP.
This move in the President’s opinion is for the top policy maker to ascertain the real situation in the village, which any text will title as an issue search. The pertinent question to ask is why these concerns do not come up on any agenda paper. Basically, it may be that those affected have no voice because organised interest groups with power and influence drive the issues that get priority. In a poor country, this should come as no surprise. The electronic media of late have had a number of programmes as an agenda-setting exercise with limited success but their main objective was to embarrass the local politicians and bureaucrats. The president also has an interest in attending to their immediate concerns before they could intensify in the future creating more headaches for him. Seeing the problem first hand gives the first policy maker in the country a view of the issue plus the complexities and need for ameliorative action.
The other positive from the perspective of the villager is the immediacy of solution, as resources can be mustered straight away by the President, which otherwise takes long years noting the plethora of departments and other bodies that are involved.
Sri Lanka is one of the highly bureaucratised countries with a public service ‘surplus to requirements’ and running the gauntlet is beyond the capacity of villagers. For example, to regularise a land permit, I was told by a one-time Land Commissioner, one has to have approvals from 23 odd government and semi government organisations. Things are unbelievably complicated by the number of authorising bodies. It took me 12 years after occupation to obtain the deed to my apartment from a government department in Colombo, and that too after two costly court cases. Bureaucratic corruption and inefficiency! Let us not talk about it. No wonder that the people awaiting the arrival of the President were sadly disappointed last week by the cancellation of his visit at the last minute.
In this bottom-up policy initiative there are many pitfalls that we can list straightaway. The President can visit only a few villages and those that are neglected can be politically ‘not with him’. Secondly, the problems are the same in most villages and it will be pointless wasting the time of the President because he will reach the saturation point very soon. He will realise that there are better and efficient mechanisms, given the resources, which can attend to these problems. What the information tells the President is that the issues, being common to many of the fourteen thousand villages are crying out for a national plan of action. Hence we wonder whether it is it the enormity of the issues that strained the limits of those who had power before, causing this neglect? Was it lack of insight, proper understanding, ministerial inexperience or the fear of realising the complexity of the interrelationships between issues or sheer lack of resources that caused this oversight?
The President cannot visit all villages and the solutions he instantaneously gives can be counterproductive. The furore over the environment and forests is a classic case where the Presidents instant solutions have become the weapon in the hands of an environmentally conscious middle class youth on whose bandwagon the opponents of the government are taking a joy ride.
The President will face similar catch-22 situations, which adversely affect his popularity. Incremental policies at the margins by themselves do not achieve much.
Sri Lanka failed in the bottom-up policy development due to many reasons and I can only highlight briefly a few for lack of space. The inefficient and lethargic conduct of the public institutions, the way our peoples representatives are elected without responsibility for particular localities, over 8000 politicians, the haphazard manner in which ministries are created for politicians (Foreign Affairs coupled with Lotteries!), the total lack of coordination between departments, the corruption of public officials, the inability of law to punish those who flout the law, the misuse of power and influence, the non-use or decay of coordination mechanisms such as Divisional, District and Provincial coordinating committees, and the lack of nexus between Provincial Councils and local authorities and many more. The political solution proposed by way of Provincial Councils has become a dead weight. Generally, we are an over governed society and as such the use of modern scientific management for policy implementation is non-existent.
An article appeared in your paper the other day by our colleague Ranjith Soysa from Australia about the successes of China in eradicating poverty in a matter of decades by comprehensive social policy planning which Sri Lanka can learn from. A white paper on poverty alleviation, which outlines the success of policies implemented, the methods employed and her desire to share the unique social experiment with other developing countries was mentioned therein. ‘Sri Lanka should make use of this opportunity to study the programme and follow its guidelines if a national comprehensive policy is to be implemented.
China achieved the largest scale battle against extreme poverty, as 98.99 million people had been lifted out of absolute poverty––a miracle in human history. But China achieves success because it is a planned centrally and the ideology is driven with strict, rigidly enforced rules, but whether we, being overly democratic, can enforce such discipline in a country noted for a poor work ethic is any one’s guess.
Hogwood,B.W & L.A.Gunn (1984) Policy Analysis for the Real World, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
D.Chandraratna, Making Social Policy in Modern Sri Lanka (2003), Vijitha Yapa, Colombo.
Implementing 13A: Some thoughts
The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects.
by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A), which introduced devolution of power to the periphery, is again in the news, this time on the need to fully implement it. President Ranil Wickremesinghe first raised the issue in Parliament, asking the various parties whether they are for 13 Plus, meaning improving on 13A. SJB’s Lakshman Kiriella, an avowed supporter of devolution, while saying that his party is for it, asked the President whether Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP, which provides the President with the Parliamentary majority he needs for his legislative agenda, was supportive. Pressed by the President and Kiriella for a response, Rajapaksa, who had promised India to improve on 13A, rose reluctantly and said ‘13 Plus’.
President Wickremesinghe’s attempt to get a consensus on a constitutional settlement of the national question did not get off the ground. The SLPP is unlikely to abandon its Sinhala-nationalist platform. Opposition parties were sceptical. Realising the impossibility of a far-reaching amendment, the President has changed his strategy to one of fully implementing 13A, without changes, or with minor changes, that could muster SLPP support.
Several Opposition parties, that attended the previous meetings of the All-Party Conference (APC), stayed away from the meeting, held on January 27. While the SJB said that the APC was a mere ‘talk show,’ its ally among the Hill Country Tamils, the TPA, said that the President had not considered the issues facing them. The SJB’s Muslim allies did participate. MP Harini Amarasuriya clarified that while the NPP supported the 13A, in principle, it did not consider the President’s statement, on fully implementing the13A, credible.
The main areas in which the 13A has not been implemented are law and order (Police powers) and land. To add to this, successive governments have, over the last 35 years, taken back several subjects, and functions, that legitimately belong to the Provincial Councils (PCs) – agrarian services being one of them. The high point of central intrusion was the Divineguma Act of 2013, under which several functions of PCs, related to rural development, were taken over, using the two-thirds majority that the Government possessed.
Constitutional and legislative changes
The President spoke of the need to establish the National Land Commission, a requirement of the 13A, but which successive governments had not done. He also said that a decision on whether to continue with Provincial Police Commissions, or to bring the Provincial Police, under the National Police Commission, had to be taken. The latter would be a centralising feature—a 13 Minus—that will be to the disappointment of pro-devolution forces.
At the time of the 13A, there was no National Police Commission. Appointments, transfers, etc., of Police personnel, were handled by the Public Service Commission, with the Cabinet of Ministers having the power to overturn decisions of the PSC. To set up the National Police Commission and Provincial Police Commissions, provided for by the 13A, the Police Commission Act No. 1 of 1990 was passed but has not been brought into force by successive Presidents. Under the 13A, a Provincial Police Commission would consist of the Deputy Inspector General of Police, a person nominated by the Public Service Commission, in consultation with the President, and a nominee of the Chief Minister. Since the 13A, a National Police Commission was set up by the 17th and 19th Amendments, and the President now appoints its members on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. The writer submits that these changes must be reflected in the Provincial Police Commissions, as well. The sub-committee on Law and Order, of the Constitutional Assembly of the previous Parliament, recommended that the Chairman, and the members of the Provincial Police Commissions, should be recommended by the Constitutional Council, having considered nominations, jointly provided by the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the respective Provincial Council. The writer submits that a better option would be for a Provincial Police Commission to be appointed by the Governor, on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, which should be required to call for nominations from the general public and also consult the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the Province concerned. Any such change would require a constitutional amendment.
The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects. The Commission will lay down general norms, regarding the use of land, having regard to soil, climate, rainfall, soil erosion, forest cover, environmental factors, economic viability, etc. In the exercise of the powers devolved on them, Provincial Councils shall have due regard to national policy, formulated by the National Land Commission. The Constitution does not set out the composition, etc., of the National Land Commission. The establishment of the Commission would have to be ordinary legislation.
Broad consensus needed
President Wickremesinghe, with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Premier Dinesh Gunawardena, sitting beside him, told the APC that the Cabinet of Ministers had approved the full implementation of the 13A. If as President Wickremesinghe confidently says, he has the support of the Cabinet of Ministers and, thus, of the SLPP, the full implementation of 13A would be certainly possible. But it is important that the President reaches out to the Opposition parties, as well. The SJB is for devolution as a solution to the national issue. Sajith Premadasa’s Presidential election manifesto pledged maximum devolution, within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka. Premadasa won areas dominated by Tamils, Muslims and Hill Country Tamils, with percentages second only to those secured by President Kumaratunga, in 1994. SJB’s Muslim and Hill Country allies support devolution, but the President needs to talk to parties representing those communities, about issues pertaining to them, too.
The new ‘Helicopter’ alliance seems unable to take a unified stand on the 13A. Dullas and Dilan Perera were at the forefront of CBK’s campaign for devolution, and Professor G.L. Pieris was the architect of her devolution proposals. Tissa Vitarana did an admirable job of getting a consensus on the national issue, through the APRC process. The Left parties in the Utttara Sabhagaya are strong supporters of devolution, while their nationalist allies are against it. Former President Sirisena spoke in support of implementing the 13A at the APC. The JVP/NPP is unlikely to oppose moves to implement the 13A.
It must not be assumed that the President’s declared intention to implement the 13A could be put into practice easily. Sinhala nationalists, in the Uttara Sabhagaya, have already declared war against fully implementing the 13A, and not all SLPP elements would be enthusiastic about supporting the proposed changes. They are sure to be joined by Sinhala extremists outside Parliament. Anti-13A forces would attempt to use discontent among the masses suffering due to the economic mess the country is in. In these circumstances, the Government needs to convince the people, and the Opposition, of the genuineness of the exercise and the chances of its success. Lest the extremists raise the ‘separatist’ bogey, President Wickremesinghe and the Government must meet such arguments, taking the bull by its horns, and also explain to the people that power-sharing, through devolution, is a must, not only to solve the ethnic issue but also for the development of the periphery. Given its composition, the present Government cannot do so on its own. It must reach out and build a broad consensus on the issue.
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
Former president Sirisena has declared that he is poor and therefore has to go begging to pay compensation awarded by the Supreme Court to the victims of the Easter Sunday massacre! He was unwilling to stand in the dock when he appeared as an accused in a subsequent case and had to be ordered to do so by the Magistrate.
Just imagine an ex-president going around begging from the populace that was made destitute by the actions of the government he headed and the government that followed, which he was part of! To make matters even worse he gives totally ludicrous and unbelievable explanations. Let me add a few of my thoughts to many opinions expressed so far, including those in the editorial “Sirisena’s plea” (The Island, 24 January) wherein the editor quite rightly names those responsible for making this totally undeserved person the President, and suggests that they should help him pay, if at all.
The two important issues that need consideration are whether Sirisena is guilty of neglecting his duties as president in not defending the country from terrorism and who is responsible for paying the compensation awarded by the Supreme court.
I pose the first question because in numerous press conferences, Sirisena has stated that the Supreme Court awarded compensation because he was indirectly responsible for the actions of security chiefs he appointed, implying that there is no direct responsibility! One wonders whether Sirisena is unable to understand the judgement, which categorically states that there were lapses such as the malfunctioning security council for which he was directly responsible. In fact, what surprised me was the reflected annoyance or frustrations of the honourable justices by their use of terms like “what takes the cake” in referring to some of these terrible lapses! Though Sirisena does not come from an academic background, having been a cabinet minister and the general secretary of a major political party for years, surely, he should be able to grasp the contents of a judgement.
Obviously, Sirisena cannot challenge the judgement as it was delivered by the highest court in the land and he cannot criticise the judgement as it would amount to contempt of court. Therefore, it is pretty obvious that he is using a diversionary tactic hoping to fool us. Perhaps, he is unaware of the famous adage: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
Sirisena seems to have developed total amnesia about the commission he appointed to inquire into the Easter Sunday massacre! From parts of the report released, it was pretty obvious that the blame lay, in addition to the security establishment, on him as well as the prime minister of the day, who as the present president must be having bad dreams of the day when he no longer has presidential immunity!
In fact, one of the reasons for the downfall of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was his reluctance to take action on that report. Perhaps, he did so at the behest of his younger brother who was obsessed with the two thirds majority.
Sirisena seems to disregard facts and is on a shameless mission to deceive the public again by stating that he has no means to pay compensation. He claims that his only income is from a mango plantation and that he does not own even a motorcycle. But have we ever seen him riding a bicycle or travelling by bus?
Although he has not provided any proof, Sirisena claims that he was in a hospital in Singapore for an urgent medical condition at the time of the attack. Why did he go to Singapore instead of seeking treatment at home? Afterall, he was the Minister of Health before contesting the presidency! How did the urgency resolve for him to return the following day? How did this poor mango grower have the money to go to Singapore for treatment? Did the public coffers cough up the money for allegedly a shopping trip he did for his son’s wedding?
In spite of the Presidential Commission he himself appointed finding him guilty and the highest court of the land directing him to pay compensation to victims, Sirisena has failed the nation by refusing to show any remorse or take his share of responsibility. Instead, he is attempting to make a political drama out of it. What about his brother Dudley, who roared like a lion threatening to teach a lesson to anybody who tried to punish his elder brother in any way? Why is he hiding like a lizard not offering to foot the bill? Has Sirisena no shame in allowing one of his supporters to beg under the Bo tree in Pettah? A decent politician would have opted to go to jail rather than beg but decency is, perhaps, something totally alien to Sirisena!
Sirisena, who really should set an example to others who were ordered to pay compensation, does not seem even to follow their behaviour of silent acceptance. He should remember that we have not forgotten what was stated by the ex-IGP that Sirisena offered him a diplomatic posting provided he accepted responsibility. He must be regretting the refusal! Those who should go round begging are government servants who have no means to pay compensation, not the mango grower whose brother is one of the richest “Hal Mudalalis”!
Mr Sirisena! You have no sense of shame and you have done everything possible to deflect blame. What I fail to comprehend is why the SLFP does not get rid of you. Perhaps, it has a death-wish and so do the ex-Pohottuwa chaps who decided ‘helicopter’! It clearly shows that ours is the land of politicians with no sense of shame!
Harassment of women in politics on the rise
by Rathindra Kuruwita
Election monitors and activists express concern that digital harassment of female politicians will increase when the local council elections campaign gets into full swing in the coming weeks.According to the preliminary results of a survey conducted by the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), more than 70 percent of female local councillors and grassroots political activists have faced digital harassment.
CaFFE Executive Director Manas Makeen said the majority of those who were subjected to digital harassment (around 80 percent) had not lodged complaints with the law enforcement authorities or with the political party leadership because they felt it was an exercise in futility.
“Even if these women politicians go to the police or their party leadership, there is no solution. They have to find solutions themselves. The introduction of the quota for women candidates at the local council level has upset some politicians and they have resorted to the digital sphere to undermine their female opponents,” he said.
Makeen said the survey had also revealed that about 55 percent of women politicians and activists had faced physical harassment during their political careers. However, digital harassment was the most common form of harassment now. He said almost 90 percent of those who were harassed online believed politicians in the same party were behind the attack.
Nilka Perera (not her real name) is a member of a local council in Puttalam.
The 33-year-old politician said the harassment had begun with the announcement of the 25-percent-female-candidate quota ahead of the last local council elections, in 2018.
“Some religious leaders gave sermons on why people should not vote for women and their video clips are all over social media,” she said, noting that such misconceptions were not limited to one religion or community. “People were initially sceptical about women in politics and male politicians were quick to latch on to it. While there is misogyny in society, most attacks on female politicians are organised campaigns,” she said.
SJB MP Rohini Kavirathne said the Women Parliamentarian’s Caucus was well aware of systematic digital harassment of female politicians. She said that all female politicians including her had been victims of online harassment and that the Caucus had been active in assisting women in need.
“We have always been willing to help women, on an individual basis. We have also contributed and worked with election monitors, the Elections Department, and other relevant parties to empower women and stop the harassment. While the harassment continues, I am glad to see that women are becoming stronger and are proactively countering propaganda against them,” she said.
The CaFFE survey also found that although the majority of participants received some kind of training from a government or a civil society organisation in countering digital harassment, most of the female politicians over the age of 55 were unable to answer what they would do if they faced digital harassment.
The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said he, too, had noted a spike in digital harassment of female politicians during the campaign for the 2018 local council elections after the 25 percent female candidate quota was given legal effect. At least 25 percent of the names on the nomination lists, submitted by parties or independent groups should be female candidates.
“Targeted harassment of female politicians, especially those who engage in grassroots-level politics, continues to be a serious problem,” he said, expressing fears that the problem would only aggravate with the election season approaching without any proactive countermeasures from political parties.
There was also a lot of character assassination through social media, and such campaigns were ongoing, Hettiarachchi said.
Pointing out that Sri Lanka did not have a mechanism to take swift action against election malpractice, he said this was a major lacuna that should be addressed, especially given the harassment female candidates faced in the digital sphere.
“Our law enforcement mechanisms are slow. During an election period, immediate action should be taken against election law violators,” he said. “What’s the point in taking action against a campaign of digital harassment a few months after the elections are over?”
Police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said the Sri Lanka Police Computer Crime Investigation Division had been established to help victims of computer crimes including digital harassment.
“I don’t have numbers on the top of my head, but I don’t think we get a lot of complaints from grassroots-level female politicians about digital harassment,” the Senior Superintendent of Police said.
He said this was probably because the women politicians feared they would antagonise their party leaders if they complained to the police.
“However, since you brought this issue up, the police must work closely with other stakeholders as the elections approach,” he said.
The urban-rural divide
When the then government introduced a quota for women in late 2017, weeks before the nominations for local council elections were called, most political parties had not been ready, said Kalana Weerasinghe, Chief Operating Officer at the Federation of Sri Lankan Local Government Authorities (FSLGA). He said several political parties nominated friends and family members to fill the 25 percent female-candidate quota.
“Women were often made candidates in wards that male party leaders thought they would lose. However, now we have more than 2,000 female local councillors out of some 8,000, and they can be divided into three categories.
“First, there are seasoned female politicians who have been in politics for decades and some of them are even more popular than their parties’ electoral organisers. They could easily win parliamentary elections, too, if they were given an opportunity. Then there are friends and family members of political party officials, and they have no interest in politics although they are now elected people’s representatives. The third group comprises newcomers who are passionate about what they are doing.
“So, when it comes to digital harassment, the first group is capable of handling any personal attacks. The second group probably will drop out but those in the third group have learnt to adapt and fight back though they were at first depressed by digital media harassment,” Weerasinghe said.
He said the fightback was especially visible in the urban areas where women politicians were more educated and apt in digital technologies than their rural counterparts. These women realise the power of digital media, and how it can benefit their careers. “Being in politics also makes them tougher,” he said.
With the mainstream media giving little or no space for women local council politicians, social media was the main tool they could use to build up a larger support base and tell the voters about what they did and what they believed in, Weerasinghe said.
“A person who is facing harassment can lock his or her profile pic, but a politician can’t do so. No country has been able to reduce online harassment to zero. So, it is also about empowering women and building support structures. We have to make female politicians resilient and there is a lot that the government, political parties and civil society groups can do,” he said.
Role of civil society and govt.
While some female politicians in urban areas are coming to terms with the digital landscape, there are other women and activists who are not yet tech savvy to promote themselves or deal with increasing levels of online harassment.
Makeen said that although most women politicians were on Facebook, quite a few did not know how to use the platform to promote their political careers. If they faced online harassment, they would lock their profiles or stop using social media, he said.
“Early this year, we did a study on online harassment faced by women politicians. We found that they knew about the platforms and online harassment, but they did not know how to use social media to boost their career or how to proactively deal with cyberbullies,” he said.
Makeen said they had also held a series of consultations with national-level female politicians and found out they had also been victims of concerted digital harassment.
“A young former MP once told us that at the beginning of her career, she had been devastated by cyberbullying. This is the case of someone coming from a political family and had gone through trauma. She said it was so bad that she had even contemplated quitting politics. With the backing of her family, she had learnt to ignore the bullies and connect with those who supported her although she is one of the most memed female politicians today,” he said.
Women fighting back
Manjula Gajanayake, Executive Director of the Institute of Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES), said several young and educated female politicians including those at the grassroots level had learnt how to navigate the digital sphere.
While digital harassment continued to be a serious problem, there were signs of female local councillors building the necessary support structures to overcome it, he said.
“Initially, a lot of local women councillors were devastated by digital media harassment. I was told that some families were on the verge of breaking up. However, in the past few years, we have seen a counterattack. Female local councillors who are serious about their work have behaved with great integrity and now they are getting social recognition. Their family members, who were initially hesitant or upset about them being in politics, have now warmed up,” he said.
Describing the trend as a positive change, Gajanayake called on the government and political parties to step up efforts to end digital harassment of women candidates.
He said that often targeted digital harassment was carried out by political actors and sometimes by those in the same party.
“If the political parties are stricter and take complaints by their women candidates more seriously, we would see a sharp drop in instances of targeted digital harassment,” he said.
* This story is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.
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