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The next step

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Nepalis were disillusioned with the candidates on offer, not with democracy. That is the main take-home for the political parties.

It was an election that had to happen and it did. No one said it was going to be perfect, no one expected it to be completely free of violence and intimidation, but it was the process that was more important than the actual exercise.

Elections in a democracy should never be just for the sake of elections, this one was. It was an emergency bypass to get the country’s failing heart pumping again. Nepalis let their apathy and disillusionment be known through opinion surveys and vox pops in the previous months. But as it turns out, they were never apathetic about elections. The need to get the country’s derailed politics back on track was greater than the need to ensure a ‘normal’ election without irregularities.

Wednesday’s vote showed an unprecedented historic turnout, once more proving many doomsday pundits wrong. The biggest defeat was suffered by the Dash Maoists, whose cadres till the morning of elections were on a terrorism spree. In their strongholds in Rolpa, there wasn’t much voting.

Now begins the long wait for the final results that, if the 2008 exercise was anything to go by, could take a week. The delay is because of the sheer number of political parties in the fray (130 at last count) which meant the Election Commission could not deploy electronic voting machines this time either. The EC must be commended for doing its job reasonably well at a time of great internal and external pressures. Despite the fiasco over Voter ID cards and some political parties pretending the code of conduct didn’t exist, one must hand it to the EC for having the logistics sorted out despite last-minute uncertainties.

LONG LINE: Women await their turn to vote at Paknajol, Kathmandu-7. (MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA)

LONG LINE: Women await their turn to vote at Paknajol, Kathmandu-7. (MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA)

We won’t know for some time who the winners will be, but in a sense, all the political parties are losers. This election was needed because of their collective failure to write a constitution and agree on powers-sharing over the past five years. But by far the biggest loser is the CPN-M for playing an unrepentant spoiler, for offering no alternatives, and for the terrorist arson and bombings it unleashed on innocent Nepalis. Mohan Baidya is now not just politically, but also morally bankrupt.

There will be a lot of lessons to be learnt from this election. The foremost being that we should never again put the country through expensive elections just to cover up for the gross irresponsibility and failure of the political forces. The people have given the political parties one more chance to prove themselves, let them not squander it again.

The Election Commission should not be so beholden to the political parties, or so weak that it can be blackmailed on the conduct and rules. The EC did try six months ago to set a threshold for CA membership, parties below a cutoff percentage of votes would not be allowed. But faced with the threat of a boycott by smaller parties, it buckled.

As the results become clear, a new CA will convene and that is where the next challenge lies: to ensure that we don’t get bogged down for four years like we did last time. The political parties and the CA collectively would do well to exercise some humility about their mandate. Getting the most number of seats in the CA doesn’t mean the winner takes all. The 12.2 million eligible voters make up slightly more than one-third of the country’ 28 million population and with a 70 per cent turnout it means the CA represents the votes of nearly half of Nepalis of voting age.

The other half either didn’t, or couldn’t, vote. Also completely unrepresented are the more than four million Nepalis living and working abroad, since there is no provision for absentee voting. This cohort is nearly 15 per cent of the population, is about half of the country’s population of men between 20-40. Not giving them a chance to vote is a huge blank in the voter list. Absentee balloting must be a must in next elections.

On the longer-term, the next government must start working towards electoral reform, since campaign financing lies at the root of political corruption as leaders return favours and divide up the spoils with businesses when they get to office.

The key question, however, will be will the CA have the legitimacy and the commitment to write such an important document as the constitution to determine the future of Nepal? For now the answer will have to be: yes, because there is no other alternative.

Kunda Dixit

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