8-14 July 2016 #816

Electing to govern

Nepal’s political parties believe they have to be in power to be elected to power.

Bhanu Bhattarai

In most mature democracies, there tends to be a pattern of anti-incumbent voting. Even if a ruling party has performed reasonably well while in power, citizens often vote them out simply because they want a change of scenery. 

In Nepal, it is the other way around: political parties all want to be in power when elections are conducted so they can help themselves to state resources during campaigning in order to influence or buy vote banks.

It is in that light that we should interpret the sudden talk of regime change, and the proposals for a majority or consensus government to replace the Maoist UML RPP-N coalition led by Prime Minister Oli. After having foiled a ‘coup attempt’ two months ago by the opposition Nepali Congress, Oli is again facing an attempt to unseat him — this time not by the NC but by the Maoists who are threatening to pull the rug out from under him.

Even though the NC and the Maoists have tried to justify this new challenge by saying that they want to bring dissatisfied Madhesi parties into the fold to amend the constitution and finally conclude the constitution process, in actual fact it is just about being in power at election time. Otherwise, why would this new alliance want to remove the UML, which is the second largest party in parliament, and expect to have a consensus on the constitution?

The proof of a good constitution lies in its implementation. And the fate and direction of the country rest on adhering to the stipulated rules laid out in it to conduct periodic elections. According to the timetable, local, provincial and national elections should be completed by January 2018 at the latest. 

The irony of it all, however, is that politics is stuck because of the endless power struggle in Kathmandu. Prime Minister Oli has announced approximate dates for elections, and has said he will conduct all three of them himself. Nothing could have spooked the Maoists and the NC more — imagine the nature and extent of incumbent advantage the prime minister’s party would garner. 

However, what lends credence to the theory that Oli has left room for bargaining is talk that the NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba and Maoist Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal will be allowed to rotate prime ministership to oversee two of the three elections. But even that merely confirms that this is purely about power, and not about ensuring an inclusive constitution to take this country forward.

Oli is banking on the Madhes movement running out of momentum in the months ahead so he can pick off their leaders one by one by offering them plum posts. That could still happen, but it does not address the uncertainty and anger in the Madhes directed at Kathmandu-based politicians. Without resolving that issue, the constitution is a dead duck.

To be sure, Oli himself does not sound too convinced when he speaks about holding three elections in less than two years. He has announced a timetable, but has not done any of the necessary political footwork.  Neither are the NC and the Maoists confident that there can be elections, but they want to be in power just in case it does somehow take place. 

It is difficult to fathom the rationale behind the Maoists ditching the UML and getting into bed with the NC at this point in time, unless it is to be at the controls when elections are held. As for UML, there is nothing like the impending elections to focus the minds of its fractious leadership. Oli is banking on coasting along somehow -- at least until local elections are held in December -- to maintain the UML’s previous hold on local councils. 

The wild card in all this, of course, is that Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa of the RPP-N is already in campaign mode, touring the country giving fiery speeches to largely sympathetic crowds about restoring the Hindu state. In this, he appears to have considerable support from political forces down south, and flying the saffron flag could be a game-changer in future polls by pitting religious sentiments against secular and federal voices.

The tragedy in all this, needless to say, is that the same failed politicians from the past two decades are still playing politics as usual. Extraordinary times demand extraordinary statesmanship, a quality lamentably lacking in the personalities we see haggling over who should be in government at election time. 

Read also:

Yes, Prime Minister, Kunda Dixit

Pulling the rug, Kunda Dixit

Trouble in the alliance, Navin Jha

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