Elections and our Bonaparte

From The Kathmandu Post (6 December, 2012)

The unreality of the moment is this: we are planning for elections in April 2013 knowing full well that the UCPN (Maoist) simply does not want to go there. The party split down the middle in June, and Chairman Pushpa Kamal fears a poor showing in the polls for all the “harkat” and triplespeak of the past six years. Then there is the party General Convention slated for January-February, which for him is more important than a national election.

Dahal knows that during the election campaign, free of the shackles of the transitional phase, the opposition parties will finally rake up the matters of corruption, abuse and impunity. There may be money in the till to try and buy the elections, but with the cantonments disbanded and arms containers removed the party is less able to intimidate the electorate as in the 2008 elections. Plus, violence could invite a domino effect in reaction, as nearly happened in May 2010 during the Maoist “indefinite Nepal banda”.

For these and other reasons, Dahal would rather sabotage the elections, using delay tactics to make it impossible to make the April date. The easiest tool is to create hurdles in the formation of an electoral government. This is the reason to malign President Ram Baran Yadav as he tries to cajole the parties to agree on a consensus prime minister as required by the Interim Constitution. If Dahal can push things through December, the April elections are doomed.
The Maoist chairman’s ultimate tool of prevarication is to demand “package agreement” on the outstanding issues from the departed Constituent Assembly, even though this would negate the very rationale of the forthcoming elections and the House it would bring forth. In essence, Dahal wants the opposition to agree to the so-called “mixed system” that would allow a directly-elected chief executive. He believes he needs this position to save his career and future, and to emerge as a “Nepalian Bonparte” or a modern-day Jung Bahadur.

Madhesbadi equation

The Nepali Congress should have come up with a candidate for prime minister soon after the demise of the CA, but Messrs Deuba and Poudel were too busy scurrying after lollypops held aloft by Dahal. Sushil Koirala would know better why the wait had to be this long, but at least the Congress president is now the party’s consensual candidate, and the others in the opposition stand behind him. The UCPN (Maoist) and Madhesbadi parties are asked to agree to his leading the consensus government in which they too would be members.

But it is easier said than done, apparently. The simplest path for elections would be for the Democratic Madhesi Front, including many ministers with a democratic past, to indicate their willingness to leave the Baburam Bhattarai-led coalition. That would effectively pull the plug on the UCPN-Maoist agenda and open the way for April elections. But the Madhesbadi leaders have rejected parliamentary practice and decorum as they stick to a government that could not organise an announced election exercise. It is indicative that they seem to have no qualms in supporting the prime minister’s agenda of general amnesty for convicted killers and cancellation of cases against perpetrators.
The hyper-active Kathmandu rumour mill has the Madhesbadi parties acting on the dictates of some vigorous “southern wind”, but it’s looking more like the individual Madhesbadi leaders fear elections just as Bhattarai and Dahal do. When principles and process become irrelevant, and the only interest is to remain in government one more day and then another, it is easy to forget parliamentary practice and banish the very thought of elections.

Electoral oxygen

The 26.5 million people of the Tarai/Madhes, mid-montains and the high Himalaya deserve elections in April 2013, both nationally and locally. The practice of politics is dying from the roots as well as the branches, and the fresh oxygen of free and fair elections is required to resuscitate it.

At the district and village levels, we have not seen elections for 15 years, and there has been no accountability in local government for a full decade. The “all party mechanisms”, surviving even when they have been disbanded, have corrupted the cadre of all parties to the grassroots. From the national level to the DDCs and VDCs, the opposition is weakened to such a degree that they have been unable to challenge the UCPN (Maoist) malfeasance and corruption. In the districts, human rights activists and journalists find that the opposition is just not there to protect them against attacks of marauders. Society is being readied for rule-by-commissar, it seems.

The most important requirement for free and fair elections is a government of political parties. The call for “independent citizens” to form the interim government is problematic because the individuals are bound to be compromised by the Maoists, given the arsenal of tools at their command. Only politicians and parties will have the strength to withstand the pressures and conduct independent elections, and prevent a debacle such as that of April 2008.

The Election Commission, presently without a head, will have to be led by persons of democratic integrity rather than individuals bent on appeasing the powerful. We must also discuss how international election observers can truly support the democratic exercise, and not give a readymade stamp of approval after cursory observation. The Nepal Army was always part of the electoral exercise before 2008, and it must now be deployed in election duty together with the Armed Police force, to ensure security of the election booths as well as of citizens during a potentially violent campaign. Most importantly, it is the election campaign period, rather than the polling day itself, that should be the focus.

Coaching class

The time of the Constituent Assembly was a kind of coaching class for the population, an immersion course in which the citizenry was introduced to a range of issues for the first time, from understanding the diversity of the population to the matters of federalism and separation of powers. The upcoming election will be time for the citizens of democratic Nepal to evaluate the arguments of the political parties and mark their ballots. Perhaps all political parties fear the outcome of the forthcoming elections, but some of them are actively seeking to derail the process. All who respect the Nepali people’s right to representation must bring pressure to bear on the UCPN (Maoist), to make the party submit to the people through elections. Thereafter, the need is to ensure that they are free and fair.

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