Controversial constitution survives the first phase of local elections in Nepal
When the polling ended on the evening of 14 May in Nepal, the Election Commission and the Human Rights Commission concluded that the first phase of local body election has been held ‘relatively’ peacefully.
Relatively, however, is a loaded term.
Howsoever frightening it may appear, a high-level of interest in elections often mean higher stakes for contestants, which leads to higher levels of violence during polling in fragile states with poor or partisan law enforcement agencies.
The Democracy Resource Center, a Kathmandu-based NGO that was monitoring polls in association with its various partners, reported that by the noon of 15 May, a total of 81 incidents had been recorded. Sixty six of them violent where at least three people had been killed and approximately 43 injured in election-related scuffles.
Considering that nearly 71% of 4,556,525 registered voters had cast their votes in the keenly contested polls, incidences of violence were indeed ‘relatively’ low. But the more important question remains unanswered.
Was the cost of conducting partial local elections – the most expensive in history – under a controversial constitution worth its human and material price?
Meanwhile, counting of votes continues at snail’s pace where initial trends show that the big three of Nepalese politics – CPN (UML), Nepali Congress, and CPN (Maoist Centre) – respectively are in the lead in most municipalities.
Being the first electoral contest after the promulgation of the constitution in September 2015, interest levels were high with dozens of parties in the fray. Votes had to be cast for several posts at the same time. Broadsheet-sized ballot papers made for a confusing choice.
Amidst political uncertainties, all arrangements for polls were done at extremely short notice. Hence voters had very little idea about candidates and their electoral symbols.
Such confusion has led to an alarmingly high rate of invalid votes being cast. In addition to the importance of properly prepared elections, some more lessons of the whole exercise are worth contemplation by all stakeholders of Nepalese politics.
The first lesson of hustings is that the country remains psychologically divided between the Pahad and the Madhesh regions. Local elections have further widened existing rifts. Contrary to the propaganda of the Permanent Establishment of Nepal (PEON), partial polls don’t validate the controversial constitution.
Elections were held mostly in the mid-mountains of central Nepal where supporters of the status quo had lit lamps to celebrate the promulgation of the discriminatory statute two years ago.
Most of Madhesh had marked the day with a voluntary blackout.
The Madheshis are yet to give their electoral consent to the constitution. The polls, however, have shown that mid-mountains have no reservations about the charter of the elite compact that seeks to institutionalise the status quo.
The polls have also shown that the so-called international community continues to have immense leverage in the internal affairs of Nepal.
More than the Nepalese themselves, it was a section of bilateral donors, multilateral lenders, the INGOs and their spokespersons in the civil society that sold local elections as the panacea for all ills of bad governance.
The second lesson of the polls is equally loud and clear: In a donor-dependent country, an appearance of democracy is more important than substance.
Divide & rule
In the first phase of the polls, strongholds of the dominant Khas-Arya ethnicity seem to have voted massively for the two main political parties of the country – Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) and Nepali Congress.
The CPN (UML) has improved its sway over the 'lumpen bourgeoisie' – a parasitic class born out of trading cartels and service industry syndicates of the remittance-based economy and consequent criminalization of body politic.
Slogans of jejune jingoism, puerile patriotism and xenophobic nationalism continue to sell well with this section of the national population in Nepal. Voting pattern also shows that the Nepali Congers remains the default party of the Nepalese middle class.
The third lesson of these polls is that voters of the mid-mountains continue to trust leaders that they routinely ridicule. For example, people begin to chuckle even before UML Supremo Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli opens his mouth at public meetings and yet they vote his party on the polling day!
A large number of youths from rural areas of central and western mountains serve in various Indian security agencies or work in West Asia. Logically, such municipalities should have recorded lower voter turnout.
However, reports show that more than 70% votes have been cast even in villages where houses remain locked for the most part of the year.
Some instances of polling being higher than the number of registered voters or a few cases of tampering with ballot boxes does not fully explain this anomaly.
The fourth lesson is that either the census of the mountainous districts are exaggerated or their voters’ lists are incomplete. In either case, better data collection is necessary for fairer polls in future. The importance of trustworthy voters’ list to ameliorate democratic deficit has to be repeatedly emphasised.
Who's going to do what needs to be done?
Two years after the earthquakes, more than three-fourths of the affected families are still in makeshift shelters. Important world heritage sites of the Kathmandu Valley, which were destroyed by the tremors remain in shambles. Only props support these iconic buildings of ancient settlements.
And yet, survivors of quakes queued up to vote for the same political parties that had prioritised politicking over delivering succour.
The fifth lesson is loud and clear: Public memory is indeed short and the electorate doesn’t always succeed in rejecting under-performing political actors. The institutional design of checks and balances are more important for the health of democracy than periodic elections.
Irrespective of the outcome, elections are rituals of democracy that offer an engaging diversion from drudgeries of daily life. Money is pumped into the rural economy as party leaders descend upon their doorsteps. That could be one of the reasons calls to boycott polls often fail.
When BP Koirala had decided to withhold support for the panchayat elections in the early 1980s, the resolution of even a leader of BP’s stature did not resonate with a majority of voters.
The sixth lesson is important for Madheshbadi parties: It’s either participation or rejection, abstentions are pointless.
Nothing happens in Nepal that’s not interpreted from an ‘India angle’ by the vocal ultra-nationalists in the media and the civil society in Kathmandu. The Chinese were the first to support local election initiatives. Indians were the last ones to follow suit with material assistance. The PEON is bragging that it succeeded in holding polls despite New Delhi’s resistance.
The seventh lesson is for the Indian interlocutors of Nepal affairs – policy turnarounds run the risk of being seen as signs of weakness and are invariably counterproductive.
According to the power-sharing deal between coalition partners, Premier Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda is expected to handover the leadership of the government to NC Chairperson Sher Bahadur Deuba soon. The winter session of the parliament has been prorogued for a week to reconvene for budget session early next week.
Ruling parties had promised that the constitution amendment bill will be passed before local polls. They have since reneged on their pledge as the fate of amendment bill hangs in balance due to an inadequacy of required two-third majority for its proponents. Their priority is now the second phase of local polls. Madheshbadi parties have been left wringing their hands in frustration.
There have been credible reports that Indians are leaning upon Madheshbadi parties to make them participate in polls irrespective of the constitutional conundrum. It seems the Madheshbadis are damned if they oblige and go to the polls with tail between legs and damned even more if they don’t because that will entail the risk of losing their edgy cadres to the big three on their home turf.
Meanwhile, Dr CK Raut, leader of the movement for independence of Madhesh, is patiently waiting in the wings for mainstream Madheshbadi parties to get dishonoured and disintegrate.
If for any reason, the polls of the second phase fail, the success of the first one will also lose its relevance. In the absence of provincial assemblies, the neck of the hourglass that the controversial constitution envisages between the central and local levels of governance is already broken.
Partial local elections did succeed in giving a shot in the arm of the permanent establishment, but their hegemonic constitution is still in the political intensive care unit. Without an amicable settlement with Madheshbadis, its full-fledged implementation will remain a mirage.
Nearly a decade after the transformation of a Hindu monarchy into federal democratic republic, politics of Nepal remains in flux under the warily watchful eyes of nearly 100,000-strong Nepalese Army.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen