Originally published on Groundviews.
In 2005, I didn’t vote. Being 21, I was eligible to vote, but I didn’t – and if you asked me why, I would ashamedly admit I simply didn’t care. I was in University abroad, my mind preoccupied with the Arts, my arms wrapped around my glossy new textbooks, my life an adventure waiting to happen. Voting, politics and presidents didn’t register on my radar: the picture they represented was too big for me to fathom and it all seemed so removed from the microcosm of my life. In 2005, my parents were the presidents of my world and I the rebellious citizen, rioting for my right to certain freedoms.
After my university career, I moved back home and joined a media institution – just in time to get a front row seat to some of the most significant events in Sri Lanka’s history. 2 years and the end of a war later, I find both myself and my country in turmoil. Strange, considering we are supposed to be at peace now. But then again, we are supposed to be many things. We are supposed to be a democracy. We are supposed to be opposed to violence because violence is the way of terrorists – and we are supposed to have defeated terrorism. We are supposed to be a liberated people, with freedom of movement, expression and choice.
But it is election time now and what, of all those things, do we have?
There have been 3 election related killings already and hundreds of violent incidents. When people are intimidated into voting for someone other than their preference; when people are afraid to vote at all; when people are killed for simply supporting one side and not the other; when people are murdered for putting up an election poster – where does that leave us? Guerrilla warfare is not the only face of terrorism. And, as we are all well aware, terrorism negates democracy.
There are reportedly a million eligible voters without identity cards. There are displaced people living in areas other than where they were originally registered, without the ability to return and thus without the ability to vote. There probably thousands of people who have not been educated on how to use their vote or on just how important their vote is, especially now.
Despite grandiose announcements of there now being no minorities in the country, there certainly are, and those who are feeling it the most are the minorities themselves – simply because they have never been made to feel any other way. It is no coincidence that parties representing minority communities have banded together on one side, knowing full well the gamble they are making in order to see some sort of viable change.
As for choice… Two men are readying themselves to take on the country, each confident of their chances at winning. Two men who were once on the same side, and who are now angry, bitter enemies. Two men who are promising their country utopia: peace, prosperity, the end of corruption, the end of discrimination and the end of violence – despite the fact that they are two men whose roles in the past and whose popularity at present is built on winning a violent war by violent means. Two men who say they are committed to a free and fair election. But given their ubiquitous propaganda and incessant, nasty mud-slinging, are they two men we can believe?
Politics aside, from the viewpoint of a first-time voter, I have found myself with a choice between two angry, violent men – and I can’t help but wonder if this is any choice at all. This may seem like an emotional response to a highly complex, political situation – but fact of the matter is, the average individual is not a political animal. The average individual responds to the price of rice when it goes up making it too expensive to feed a family, to the loss of a loved one to the war regardless of which side they are on, to the thugs warning them to vote for so-and-so or else.
In the past weeks, I have surprised even myself by the level of my anxiety about elections. It is that clichéd tightening in my chest – that knowledge that I have an impossible decision to make, coupled with the knowledge that that decision could very well change my life and everybody else’s. What if I make the wrong one? This potential guilt is what, perhaps selfishly, scares me more than anything else.
Others who feel similarly have simply said they will vote for someone other than the two main candidates or that they will just not vote at all. After battling with these options myself, I have rejected them and I encourage others to do the same. Voting is a gamble, yes, but to waste that vote would be to forfeit your right to determine what happens to this country. Our individual contribution may be small – 1 in some 14 million – but collectively, for the first time in a long time, there is the merest hope of change. Change that could be our salvation or our undoing, no matter who wins this election. We are not predictors of the future, but we should not forget that have a hand in it.
In 2005, I didn’t vote.
In 2010, things are very different. I am very different. We all are. But on the 26th of January, we will all have to make a choice. To anyone sharing in my dilemma, I say this: do not vote for a person, a party or a political ideal. This year, the best any of us can do is to vote for change: change that is accommodating, fair and right. I wish all of us good luck.