22-28 November 2013 #682

Now, the constitution

Nepal once again showed the world its people believe in a peaceful, democratic way to select those who govern them
George Varughese

An estimated 70 percent of Nepalis went to polls on 19 November to elect a new constituent assembly charged with writing a long-delayed constitution. While the exuberance of the 2008 elections was missing, the hope was palpable.

By almost any measure, the period leading up to and during these elections has been peaceful. Attempts to disrupt election preparations were sporadic, often smacked of desperation, and reaped public disdain. Incidents of deaths, injuries, and kidnapping are a fraction of what they were in 2008. Security arrangements have been thorough: almost twice the number of security personnel was on the ground compared to 2008, as were a more modest contingent of domestic and international election monitors and observers. Almost all who wished to vote obtained an ID and were encouraged to vote. In addition, those who legitimately sought public office through popular vote were, for the most part, able to run.

No doubt, it is too early to fully assess the process and outcomes of this long-awaited electoral exercise, but credit must be given to both the election commission and the interim electoral government for pulling it off despite grave misgivings expressed repeatedly and until the last moment by almost everyone.

These elections were complex, not only for the unusual logistical burden it posed in terms of time frame and scope of preparatory activity; it was also an exercise in tortuous – albeit successful – navigation for election and government officials between contending political formations and variegated interest groups who sought to delay, divert, and delegitimise the process.

To those who sought to delay, the firmness shown by electoral authorities was decisive, those with legitimate claims were heard and accommodated to the extent possible and those who tried to conflate electoral process with political wrangling ended up being sidelined by the inexorable progress of events. All in all, the process has been a clinic in working politically, conducted by a fully technocratic interim government.

That said, these elections – as in 2008 – represent only an initial step toward stable, plural, representative, and accountable governance arrangements in Nepal. Beginning with the new 601- seat constituent assembly, which will become the parliament, politics must be representative of popular aspirations and not solely reflect the whims, fancies, and ambitions of individual leaders.

These aspirations include meaningful recognition and self-governance for some, redress of historical and recent grievances and injustices for others, and wholehearted acceptance of the pluralism inherent in Nepali society.

Regardless of the composition of the ruling coalition that will likely result from these elections, all parties must agree that the common minimum agenda should be to write a constitution together that embraces these and other fundamental issues facing Nepal and bring it to the full assembly for discussion and passage as quickly as possible. Other equally important tasks await, but the first order of business should be the nation’s constitution.

George Varughese is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Nepal.

[email protected]

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