Sri Lanka prides herself as a country that has had an uninterrupted practice of the parliamentary form of democracy since 1947 but while elections have been held regularly to allow the people to exercise their franchise since then, election campaigns have undergone dramatic changes.
A study of the collection of election literature housed at the Department of National Archives in Colombo illustrates that even though the duplicitous nature of most politicians remains more or less unchanged over the years, political campaigns in the past were conducted in a manner that captured the imagination of the voters using poetry (kavi), catchy phrases and cartoons to attack their opponents while promoting their candidates.
Given the uncomplicated, straightforward system of voting for only a Party and not for individual candidates before the introduction of the Proportional Representation (PR) system of elections, campaigns were driven by each Party using general issues which we are all too familiar with even today such as the cost of living, nepotism, language and ethnic issue.
The collection includes manifestos of political parties, leaflets issued in support of candidates as well as detailing their views on issues of national importance, posters or any kind of promotion material that had been used as election propaganda.While the Department began officially requesting political parties and candidates to submit to the Department copies of their election literature after the National Archives Act was passed in 1973, a large amount of material available today has been gathered by way of private collections which have either been gifted to the Department or purchased. Among them is the J.R. Jayawardene collection which includes memorabilia from the time of the Ceylon National Congress.
“An examination of our election literature enables a person to gauge the political issues and culture of that era as well as see how some of the most prominent politicians in this country conducted their election campaigns,” Wasanthi Egodawatte who is presently in charge of the election literature section of the Department said.
For example, the contentious language issue which was the main issue in the 1956 election campaign with both the main parties pledging to make Sinhala the official language, figures prominently in the election literature. Another striking fact is how the “race card” was used to appease the majority community and win their votes with the two main political parties in the country, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) accusing each other of pandering too much to the minorities.
The anti-Communist sentiments that existed soon after independence also figures in some of the political literature. “It is the UNP that will prevent Sri Lanka from suffering the fate of countries like Burma, Siam, Malaya and China where communists are trying out their doctrines with disastrous results,” reads the manual that was issued giving instructions to those attending the annual conference of the UNP in September, 1949.
The available election literature is not confined only to material in presidential and parliamentary elections but also to provincial councils and elections to local bodies and is complied in all three languages.
However, Ms. Egodawatta said the interest among political parties and even the candidates in sending copies of their propaganda material to the Archives Department is on the decline and this would deprive future generations of having access to them.
She recalled how a member of a Tamil political party was recently searching for a manifesto of his own Party in the archives but it was not found as the General Secretary of the Party had not sent a copy for preservation.
The Archives Department notifies the General Secretaries of political parties to send in the election literature they issue while the Election Department too is requested to notify parties when they attend meetings.
“In the last presidential election, only the two main candidates sent in their election literature while the rest did not respond to our request to do so,” she said.
The volume of literature circulated during time of election has grown rapidly with the introduction of the PR system with individual candidates carrying out their own campaigns in a bid to win enough preferential votes to secure a seat in an elected body.
“Electioneering has evolved over the years and a few candidates have submitted to us copies of their election material in CDs. This might be the trend in the future and it can ease the problem of storage facilities that we face,” she added.
So, while another election is around the corner, we are confronted with the faces of politicians that will soon disappear after the polls are concluded. But if this material were preserved for prosperity, it would serve as valuable sources of study to future generations about the country’s political culture and trends.