Standing by the ballot box

From The Kathmandu Post (08 November, 2013)

Hopefully, the November 19 CA-II elections will usher normalisation, unlike the April 2008 exercise

The possibility of having a ‘meaningful’ election on November 19 evaporated with the ‘democratic’ parties abandoning their responsibilities in the preparation, and the CPN-Maoist of Mohan Baidya being deliberately excluded. And yet, despite the obvious weaknesses, one must go enthusiastically into the election s for Constituent Assembly-II to ensure a return to representative government, to separate the courts from state administration and to resuscitate the sovereign national sense of self.

If it is to be a clean election exercise, one will expect the resulting state entity to move to correct the numerous mistakes of the ‘four-party syndicate’, which have dragged the polity into a quagmire. Healthy polling would facilitate the writing of a democratic constitution, organising of local body election s and a return to dignity in international relations.

One cannot speak for the polling exercise with head in the sand, however, and thus the need to concentrate on where the dangers lie. The leadership of the Nepali Congress (NC), CPN-UML and the Madhesbadi parties are not in a position to derail the process even if they wanted to. The forces that can obstruct are the Baidya Maoists and the UCPN (Maoist); hence, the need to try and understand the rivalry and/or relationship between the two forces.

What’ll Baidya do?

Much rests on whether the CPN-Maoist’s intention is to block the election s as a whole or mainly to defeat the UCPN (Maoist) and its chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal. One expects that Baidya knows that obstruction of the polls will only benefit Dahal. Torching campaign vehicles, calling a 10-day banda, attacking candidates—such performances can only divert the debate from key issues of the upcoming election s that Dahal wants to sweep under the carpet. These relate to the plunder of the exchequer, weakening of the national sovereign space, inter-community polarisation, violence in politics and candidature of alleged wartime perpetrators.

If the international community, election observers and the intelligentsia are to restrict their focus only on ‘What Baidya will do next’, they may miss the jungle for the trees. This election must rise above ritual and for this, in the short time remaining, there must be opportunity to challenge those who entrapped the economy, throttled development, developed cosy relationships with foreign ‘agencies’ and looted billions from the state coffers and general public alike.

Without a doubt, the banda announced by the Baidya Maoists starting November 10 will be disastrous for polling, diverting attention from issues and creating conditions for the eruption of violence. The banda call has elicited an unexpected and united response from the international community—a UN statement that has the European Community, the US, China, India and all others signing on. It is a statement that reflects the sentiment of the Nepali public.

If its goal is to emerge as a strong political opposition after the polls and to consolidate strength through local body election s, the CPN-Maoist must understand the dangers to itself. Baidya may remember how Dahal was weakened with the ‘indefinite closure’ of May 2010, and he should call off the banda while there is still time.

What may Dahal not do?

For his part, the UCPN (Maoist) chair is faced with towering challenges, mainly because he failed to democratise his party, acting once above-ground as if politics was all about naked power, money and nepotism. Dahal has placed himself in a situation where he has perforce to head the state if he is to lead his party, a worry not shared by his competitors. Dahal is required once again to deliver the UCPN (Maoist) as the largest party in CA-II, anything less will be seen as a defeat. Having presented himself as the all-in-all national leader of the past few years, he is now forced to carry accountability for the failure of CA-I.

Whether it is Kirtipur or Siraha, with his well-honed instincts, Dahal would know to read the size of participants at his rallies. Flying all over the country in helicopters, incidentally, in brazen defiance of the election Code of Conduct, he would know the status of the party vis-à-vis the electorate. And on this question rests so much—what would Dahal’s strategy be if his conclusion were that the UCPN (Maoist) was headed for ‘defeat’?

During the Tihar holidays, the general agreement in the chia and paan pasals was that, under such circumstances, Dahal would try to scuttle the election s—while trying to pin the blame on Baidya. Indeed, for those willing to look, there are pointers from the 2008 election s, the Shaktikhor videotape and numerous documents lying about—that the UCPN leadership can go to any length to ensure victory, using money, muscle, propaganda and assorted inducements as required.

The situation today is different from 2008, which would constrict Dahal somewhat. The cantonments are a memory, the party has split, the others have finally been able to enter the villages and the Ministry of Home Affairs is not the pushover it was back then. And yet, there is every possibility of a sudden crisis being engineered, when someone’s political career is seen to be on the line.

Security at the booth

A large part of the national cognoscenti has maintained a principled stand against the Khil Raj Regmi government since its formation. That position remains valid but given the dangers that loom, the upcoming polls require wholehearted support and participation. At the very least, Regmi’s return to the Supreme Court as chief justice will restore the principle of separation of powers. And if the exercise can be made free and fair, we can strive to reinstate the ‘meaningfulness’ that was lost in the planning—by drafting a democratic constitution and delivering good governance, rule of law, human rights and open society.

There are certain positive factors this time around compared to April 2008: the motivation level of administrators and police has improved despite challenges in the arena of impunity. And while there was the tragic murder of a UML candidate, the Tarai belt as a whole is unexpectedly calm. However, as the election date nears, some places are as terror-ridden as earlier. Constituency No 1 of Maoist Vice-Chairman Baburam Bhattarai in Gorkha deserves particular attention from the Election Commission (EC) and observers for being a potential catalyst for poll derailment.

Much will indeed depend upon the alertness of the EC under Neel Kantha Upreti. The Commission has been weaker than expected in enforcing the Code of Conduct and one hopes that the experience and values held by the various commissioners will help the institution to buck up in the two weeks to come. Their test will lie in their ability to take correct decisions on the hoof, as and when reports of malfeasance come in.

The Commission’s main task will now be to ensure security of the polling booths, and to be able to cancel voting the moment there is evidence of malpractice—selective access to voters, stuffing of ballot boxes, etc. It was the inability of the Commission to act on polling booth violence (beginning with Ramechhap) that contributed to the debacle that was the 2008 election s. Instead of shelving Election Day violence reports as ‘documentation’, the voting public expects the Commission to act, and the government to stand ready to do as ordered.

The main factor behind the failure of CA-I was indeed that the 2008 election s were not clean. The upcoming polls are an opportunity to learn from the past, to allow the public to speak through the ballot box unhindered. This would lead finally towards the ‘normalisation’ of our society, after 17 years of relentless tension that has touched and debilitated each and every one of us.

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