Milinda In Hindsight
By Raisa Wickrematunge
The UPFA Mayoral candidate for Colombo, Milinda Moragoda came into the electoral race offering a unique policy document that called for participation by all citizens. When it came down to the results of the October 8 polls, however, the UPFA lost by a significant margin. What led to the loss? What plans does Moragoda have now? The Sunday Leader met with him to find out.
Q: What is your political future going to be like, now that you have lost the election?
A: Well I think the mandate is fragmented, it is not clear. I think that reflects the nature of society here – there is a certain polarization that is also visible. The proposed programme we put forward would have required a very clear mandate, because it called for major reform. I see my role as being a bridge builder and that is what I have been doing whether I have been in active politics or out of it, especially among different ethnic groups, religions and classes. I will continue to do that, from whichever vantage point that I am placed in.
Q: Are you now the Opposition Leader of the CMC, then?
A: Well it is early days yet, really. We will learn that as we go along. We are clearly the largest group in the Opposition. Titles never interested me too much, but we will see what happens in the coming weeks.
Q: Would you take the Opposition Leadership post, if offered?
A: I will not speculate. I have never canvassed for any position. I will take the decision at that time. I have not charted a clear course as to what the next step should be. However, a number of the citizens of Colombo appear to have confidence in what I presented so I will ensure that I am at the best vantage point to represent their views.
Q: So you have no concrete plans at the moment?
A: Well, we had the 100 day programme, obviously that is not relevant here. We have to see what the administration is going to do. It is not that we do not have a plan. We must give the opportunity to those who are going to steer it.
Q: Why do you think you lost the election, despite having such a unique policy platform?
A: There could have been many different reasons. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we presented a new vision, a new political culture, a new approach. Some people obviously wanted that, and that is why we got this result. This is essentially a hung Council, in a way. I also think people voted within their comfort zones. Some who did cross made that difference but not enough.
When you analyse the performance of the two main parties between the 2010 general election and the recent 2011 municipal elections, the UNP vote base has dropped by 23% in absolute terms. The UPFA has gained 8%. So in terms of numbers that is what happened.
Then of course, the other aspect we have to be aware of is the polarization between the city and the rest of the country. Obviously there is a difference of thinking.
Q: What lessons could you take from this loss, for future elections?
A: I think more work has to be done, especially when it comes to building confidence among the major communities in Sri Lanka, and also emphasizing the need for reform. Without reform and a change in the political culture you cannot really develop the city seriously, or the country for that matter. I think that is what we tried to work on, this change in political culture.
However step by step, I can see that there is a transformation. The gap between the two main parties has significantly narrowed. Earlier this was seen as an unbridgeable gap but today anybody looking at these figures can see that this gap is bridgeable, for the first time.
Q: Do you think the fear many low-income dwellers had that they would be relocated contributed to the loss at all?
A: If you look at certain electorates like Colombo central, which are traditionally electorates where your argument may have validity, the UPFA has seen some gains. People did still vote for the UPFA.
I was in Colombo North this morning and met a lot of people there. I think there is a lot the central Government can do to transform the lives of these people.
They all were saying “Make sure this work continues.” They say that for three decades there has been no focus on these areas. What I feel happy about with this campaign is how we focused on the issues that concerned the people. We focused on policies, and we did not get distracted by all the other political rhetoric that is floating around.
People started talking about the poorer shanty areas. They were aware of the fact that there were places called Somalia, Bosnia and Serbia in Colombo. I think that is an achievement in my view, but now what do we do with that is my question, because we have to make a difference there. I do not think there is one particular reason we lost. Essentially a majority of people voted within their comfort zones and there were some who crossed over, hence this fractured result.
Q: When you crossed over from the UNP, you personally saw a drop in the number of votes you garnered. Do you think this could also have led to fewer votes for the UPFA this election?
A: I am not too sure if that is indicated in the results, given the number of votes that the UPFA got. I think I got a reasonable percentage of those votes. So I do not think that was a factor.
Q: In 2007, COPE leveled some serious allegations with regard to Merchant Credit’s defaulting on loan payments during your tenure as Economic Justice Reforms Minister. As a candidate who stands for transparency, do you think this affects your credibility?
A: I would not think so. People have expressed confidence in me. The Merchant Credit incident occurred in 1989, 21 years ago. During that period I have been elected into Parliament several times so my credibility as a candidate is not relevant in that context.
This is basically political mudslinging. COPE was a committee of Parliament at that time. It was not only against me, even Mr. Karu Jayasuriya was mentioned, I believe. In Sri Lanka the moment you have nothing better to say you start slinging mud at people. I have always refrained from doing that. Where there are facts involved I clarify them, otherwise I do not waste my time.
However in this particular case, I made a statement in Parliament which indicated that my family did not benefit from it at all.
That statement was widely circulated, because that is the forum in which one has to respond.
Q: Muzammil has told The Sunday Leader than upon being informed that you would be running for the Mayoral post, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said the UNP was being given a gift. What is your response to that?
A: Throughout, my approach is not to get into this political platform rhetoric. I have tried to change the political culture in this country and I feel that if that does not happen, people will make up their own minds. I do not really want to comment on what others have said. I think we must get away from this, because the issues are still the same. The elections are over, but the issues have not gone away. So trying to manoeuvre politically and making comments is not the issue. Now the time for delivery has arrived. This is all about delivery, not platform rhetoric. Finally it is about helping the people. That is where my mind is at.
Q: Many candidates continued with election propaganda even after the cooling off period had started, including your online advertisements. What is your comment on this?
A: Where I am concerned, my Facebook page was paused on the day campaigning had to end. If the online advertisements continued, it was not deliberate.
Pausing Facebook also cost us something, because people started posting things against me on the Net. I said that is fine let them make up their mind. As far as the campaign is concerned, we did not advertise or promote anything on principle.
Q: So those black billboards promoting Colombo as an exemplary city are not yours?
A: I think people see various things. People have to figure out what [those billboards] were. Election propaganda would be name and number and I never advocated that it be used. My name and candidate number never appeared anywhere in public. All these people sling mud but at the end of the day, I think one must substantiate these things.
Q: Do you think the elections were free and fair? Or was there a possibility of manipulation?
A: Everybody says that. I am never someone who visits the counting centre. Win or lose, I have confidence in our government officials who do that work and the system. Sri Lanka always likes to think of conspiracy theories. I think the elections were free and fair. Also in Colombo city, there was no meaningful violence. That is also important and should be made note of.
Milinda Calls For Reforms
UPFA mayoral candidate Milinda Moragoda called for reforms to several campaign laws, including those dealing with the ‘cooling off period’ and those pertaining to campaign finance.
Moragoda explained that the 48 hour ‘cooling off period’ dated back to colonial times, when police personnel needed rest prior to an election. “The technical definition is, public meetings end 48 hours before. At that time there was no knowledge of the web and television,” he observed. As such, he said these laws needed to be revised.
He also said that in the West, campaigning, advertising and even campaign meetings continued right up to Election Day.
Moragoda added that there were no serious laws on campaign financing as well. He also said the electoral system could be improved.
“The preferential votes system is what makes elections so expensive in this country,” he said. As such Moragoda said he would suggest a mixed system, or adopting a local council proposal.
He also called for civil society to contribute to legislative reform. “We need to look at it afresh but unfortunately we are not capable of doing that because everything is looked at in a very partisan way. So maybe a group of civil society figures could get together and come with proposals for new campaign laws,” Moragoda said.
Rohan Samarajiva On The Fallout
CEO of LIRNEAsia Prof. Rohan Samarajiva drafted Colombo Mayoral candidate Milinda Moragoda’s policy platform in the recently held Local Government elections.
Moragoda ultimately lost the election by a significant margin, and he was not the only one who lost out.
Samarajiva said he had suffered some fallout as a result of his decision to assist Moragoda. “[It] seemed that some people thought that this was not something that someone of my standing should do,” he said.
Last year, Samarajiva was selected to be on the judging panel for the National Integrity Awards. This year, he was once again invited by Transparency International to take part. He attended a few meetings, but after his connection with Moragoda, the organisation called him and asked him to step down.
Samarajiva said that he did not feel his rights had been infringed in any way, adding that he received no money or any other fringe benefit from such projects.
However, he said the decision to remove him from the judging panel was “symptomatic of the disease of nihilism affecting the people of this country.” Explaining further, he said that the common viewpoint on politics was that it was “dirty” and no one with a sense of integrity should get involved. “This is part of a larger problem,” he opined. It was due to this thinking that Transparency International had removed him.
However when Samarajiva had asked for answers, he was answered with platitudes. “They told me that they had lost a great resource,” he said.
Samarajiva said he had decided to assist Moragoda partly because he felt Colombo needed “transformative change.” At present, it is in a “stagnant” condition, and would need massive investment to bring about such change, Samarajiva said. He added that he knew of Moragoda’s track record, especially at the Ministry of Tourism, and so thought he would be the best candidate to support. Samarajiva clarified that it was Moragoda who had approached him and spoke of implementing the Right to Information and an open policy process where citizens could also contribute. “I thought that was very interesting,” Samarajiva said.
The policies, though innovative, did not appear to gel with the people of Colombo, however, with the UPFA garnering only 32.53% of the votes, according to the Election Department’s website.
Excerpts from the interview: