The Roman satirist Juvenal (60-140AD) suggested that the people long eagerly for two things: bread and circuses. Today's potentates seldom bother with bread but they love circuses. The municipal election this week was one such.
The regime wanted to distract the attention of urban population away from its abject failure of the past three years of interventionist monarchy. Nothing else can explain an electoral farce that was opposed by Maoists, boycotted by political parties, disparaged by international community, sneered at by media, ignored by human rights activists, barely tolerated by the bureaucracy and warily watched by a largely-indifferent population.
That the polls still drew nearly 20 percent of eligible voters (if that indeed is the true turnout) is probably because security personnel outnumbered voters in many booths. The security forces actually had to seek help from the gods in Bhadrakali on 2 February, a day after the first anniversary of the royal-military coup. COAS Pyar Jung Thapa, APF chief Sahabir Thapa, Nepal Police chief Shyam Bhakta Thapa and the NID head Debi Ram Sharma together placated Bhadrakali with animal sacrifice. The next day the supreme commander-in-chief also graced the closing puja. The goddess seems to have heeded their prayers and decided to let the show go on.
The self-congratulatory tone of Kamal Thapa and Keshab Raj Rajbhandari is quite understandable. As Panchayat veterans they know how royal elections work. All that matters is that the command of the chairman has been obeyed.
The seven-party alliance now needs to review its strategy. It must accept that one in every five voters did turn out despite threats to personal safety. The Nepali bourgeois relatively safe in urban clusters is still indifferent to the concerns of democracy, freedom of the press and human rights. Their biggest concern is still whether there is gasoline for their motorcycles and the availability of fresh vegetables. This apathy is a manifestation of the collective failure of the political parties. Unless they tap this dormant force, they can't revive the middle ground in Nepali politics.
The only ones gloating over the futility of municipal polls were the Maoists leaders. They withdrew their weeklong strike call two days in advance saying it has 'achieved its purpose'. Meanwhile their destruction of what remains of Nepal's district towns continues apace. The comrades must realise that they can't bluff their way to Singha Darbar by carefully orchestrated interviews and reckless propaganda. In ten years of Maoist insurgency, hope has been conspicuously absent in all their campaigns. Sowing despair won't take them any further.
For the royal regime, the election by itself wasn't important it just needed to go through the motions of conducting it. In fact it did everything under its power to undermine the credibility of the process by arresting political leaders, human rights activists and independent professionals opposed to the polls. Had it been a political success, it would have been a strategic failure.
Mainstream parties underestimated the determination and influence of an institution as entrenched as the Nepali monarchy and are paying for their miscalculation. Every time a Jitendra Shrestha is murdered by Maoists or a Umesh Thapa is shot by security forces, a hapless, helpless and hopeless Nepali weeps in silence. To turn that apathy into action, to wake up people power through a non-violent movement is the challenge for the political parties.
Parliamentary parties need to accept that the right-of-way in monarchical societies is the preserve of the royalists. To survive in competitive politics, they must stand for those who are left out. The palace may be good at organising circuses. The parties must promise bread, not just democracy.