Sri Lankan Public Opinion is Fickle
Updated: Feb 2
Despite pollsters’ valiant attempts to explain and predict the collective attitude of large numbers of people, they often get it wrong, either by mis-measuring the distribution of opinions, or by interpreting accurate data incorrectly.
One of the biggest problems is that public opinion can be extraordinarily fickle, especially during, after, and around national security crises. We like to think that there is some stability to public opinion, but in some cases, that kind of stability simply does not exist.
One example that stood out to me recently was Sri Lanka. In early 2015, long-time wartime president Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election to his rival, former health minister Maithripala Sirisena. Rajapaksa had led government forces to bloody victory over the Tamil Tigers in 2009, some 26 years after the insurgents first launched their war of independence.
After his victory, Rajapaksa oversaw a tightening of autocratic rule, cracking down on dissent from within Sri Lanka’s minority populations (Tamils and Muslims), as well as within the dominant Sinhalese Buddhist community.
One of Rajapaksa’s biggest Achilles heels in the run-up to the 2015 national elections, however, was his heavy reliance on Chinese-funded debt to launch major Sri Lankan infrastructure projects. In the months leading up to the 2015 election, Rajapaksa’s critics zeroed in allegations of corruption, many linked to those same Chinese projects.
Fast forward four years, however, and Rajapaksa was once again elected president. According to the New York Times, public anger at the previous government’s mishandling of intelligence information about an impending terrorist attack by Muslim extremists against Catholic churches appeared to have done the trick. Rajapaksa’s victory over the Tamil separatists years earlier had cemented his tough-guy image, and in a new moment of public national security fears, voters turned to an apparently skilled wartime leader.
What this means is that public opinion in Sri Lanka, as in many other countries, is an unpredictable beast. In 2015, public sentiment ran against Rajapaksa because of his reputation for corruption and over-reliance on Chinese debt. Four years later, sentiment ran in favor of Rajapaksa because people thought he could do a good job of handling a new security threat. Public opinion giveth, and public opinion taketh away.
China, meanwhile, has remained a constant in the Sri Lankan economy. Last month, the two countries signaled their desire to deepen bilateral trading ties, while Chinese investment has continued apace, as Rajapaksa’s successors never disrupted the economic relationship with Beijing. China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative is still busy building ports, airports, railroads, highways, and telecommunications infrastructure worldwide, and many resource-constrained countries remain entirely eager to play ball.
Some political scientists dismiss public opinion, arguing it is so fickle and elite-manipulated so as to be virtually meaningless. Ordinary people have little knowledge of politics and policy, and little motivation to learn more. For the most, the skeptics argue, publics are just too easily swayed by elite messaging. Thus, it matters only what elites think, rather than ordinary people.
I typically take issue with this position, arguing that public opinion is a real thing that cannot be reduced entirely to political manipulation. It does, I think, place real constraints on leaders’ freedom of movement, as we are seeing with Republican Senators in the US Congress right now. In some cases, moreover, it really does help shape the content of policy.
The Sri Lankan example is sobering, however. If you had looked at Rajapaksa's public opinion standing in 2015 and the importance of his Chinese connection, you'd have said he was down for the count. A few years later, however, the issue of Chinese investment was no longer a serious factor.
Public opinion is a variable, not a constant!
An earlier version of this blog post appeared on jamesron.org.