Watching the watchers

From The Kathmandu Post (10 October, 2013)

Election observation organisations tend to be regarded (and regard themselves) as akin to mother’s milk, of high moral character and beyond reproach. They give off the aroma of earnestness, whereas one can detect the whiff of naiveté and ritualism. Certainly, the accountability demands are low when you can fly into a country, or drive up to a district, go through the motions of observation, hold solemn press conferences and be gone before your hasty declaration of ‘free and fair’ impacts the host citizenry.

Nepal is going in for the holidays of Dashain, Tihar and Chhat even as the second Constituent Assembly polls come up and some see this as fortuitous because the festive spirit will prevent the turbulence that is guaranteed in the spring. The flipside to this is that there is no time left for campaigning on the critical election issues of the day, viz accountability for war crimes, corruption, economic downturn, inter-community divides and the weakening of the national sovereign space.

International election observers may themselves feel tempted to try a trek or two in the guise of monitoring work, having arrived smack in the middle of the tourist season. But hopefully, they will use the time to study the pre-poll realities, all that has been left unsaid and undone by the political class, the presidency and the government. And also examine the grievous weaknesses of the 2008 poll observation exercise, which was on the whole a betrayal of the Nepali citizenry on the chopping block of populism.

All in all, with 38 days left for November 19, we have hardly 20 days for actual campaigning outside the festivals and this helps none but the radical left and the up-and-coming right. Indeed, the holiday mood is dangerous for the organisation of clean polls—notice how the shooting of CPN-UML candidate Mohamaad Alam last Friday failed to make an impact on the government administration and political class, even though it has caused palpable alarm among the electorate, particularly in the vulnerable parts of the Tarai-Madhes.


The meaning of it

The job of elections observation is to ensure free, fair and meaningful elections. There has been great neglect of the ‘meaningfulness’ aspect by the political parties, government and Kathmandu civil society. This has left the platform for elections rather feeble, also because the NGO and INGO observation organisations failed to take a stand on crucial matters. Whether it was fear of incurring the wrath of Pushpa Kamal Dahal or the possibility of funding loss, poll review groups have been timid.

The national observation teams are fattened with donor funds and their silence over the past year, including during the passage of the poll ordinance, is objectionable. And now comes the news that, for the sake of ‘balance’, a Maoist-oriented observation organisation has been provided funding support by the donors—as if elections are a matter of balancing contending forces, those standing for democracy and those not.

On the matter of meaningfulness (sarthak chunab), the national and international observation entities did not object to: the abolition of the ‘threshold’ provision which would have restricted the number of parties in the House to a manageable level; the non-requirement of inclusiveness for parties fielding in less than 30 percent of constituencies; the abysmal representation of Dalits in the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) rosters; the exclusion of the CPN-Maoist and associated parties from the elections; and so on. There was resounding silence as the proportional representation (PR) roster was allowed to be ‘unlocked’, permitting party leaders to pick and choose rather than go sequentially. The Election Commission (EC), meanwhile, refuses to demand the release of the parties’ proportional lists to the public.

The unkindest cut by the observation goups—desi and bidesi—has been their refusal to utter a word against the fielding of war-crime accused and other accused of bloody hands as candidates. The relevant ordinance was passed without real objection from the monitoring groups. The election observers can use the Dashain holidays to understand the extent of this malafide inaction by perusing the record of this emblematic roster of candidates: Agni Prasad Sapkota, Surya Man Dong, Baban Singh, Yam Bahadur Pariyar and Balram Sah.

It is time to cross-check the philosophical guidelines of election observation against the on-the-ground record of ongoing pusillanimity. It is time for election observers to empathise with the victim (eg Purnimaya Lama, when considering the candidacy of UCPN (Maoist) spokesperson Agni Prasad Sapkota) rather than to make things easy for demagogues who plan to rule for decades on the basis of paisa and danda (money and truncheon).


The previous exercise

Election observers are programmed to ritualistically declare an election exercise free and fair, that too, as quickly after polling is over as possible in order to beat the competition. They will not do otherwise unless there is a possibility of being found out and embarrassed internationally. This time around, the EC must restrain the observer groups, national and international, from immediately pronouncing themselves on the elections as a whole. Let the polling exercise be evaluated booth by booth and let the observers concentrate on reporting fraud where they see it, and let them dare to demand cancellation where required—something most shied away from in 2008.

The observers must evaluate their own ability to evaluate the campaign period over the next 38 days, broken up between three festivals of the hill-plain. Are all candidates being allowed to campaign on the ground? At what level are financial inducements being used? What of criminalisation, particularly as it affects voters in the plains adjacent to the open border? Are families, clans and whole communities being intimidated and forced to vote for a particular candidate/party?

Belying their record thus far are the observer groups willing to call a spade a spade, when the evidence points to misuse of money, muscle and intimidation-by-propaganda? Are they equipped to monitor the media, including FM radio and bring misconduct from whichever quarter to the attention of the EC? In essence, are the groups able and willing to go beyond the ritualism of election observation, to try and guarantee an independent and clean exercise?

The 2008 exercise was allowed to be unfree and unfair, because, from the Chief Election Commissioner on down, everyone told us that the elections were part of the peace process. Everyone observed but no one reported the massive, countrywide electoral fraud. Both the national and international observer groups were complicit, with only a few organisations such as the National Election Monitoring Alliance (NEMA) seeming to go against the current. In order to prepare for November 19 and its prelude, observers organisations can use the Dashain hiatus for some self-reflection and compare and contrast NEMA’s report of the 2008 exercise with those of the other groups.

The cast of characters leading national politics are the same today as in 2008, other than the absence of Girija Prasad Koirala. The fear, once again, is that we will allow a poor election exercise to be given legitimacy, which will get our society stuck that much deeper in the mud. We may have failed in making the upcoming elections meaningful but at least we can try for an exercise that is free/fair in the true meaning of the two terms. That is when we can begin to pick up the pieces of our destroyed polity and begin to build anew—including planning for local government elections in a country where the villages and districts have been abandoned for too long.

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