Nepali Times Asian Paints
We need to talk


There is one week to go for the 13 January ultimatum the government set for the Maoists to come for talks. Otherwise, it is ready to push through with elections by April.

But the government will not have to wait till next Thursday for the Maoist response. Maoist chief Prachanda has already ruled out negotiations, warning: "Talks about elections will only mean more bloodshed."

In this showdown, the royal-appointed government of Sher Bahadur Deuba is under pressure not just from the Maoists. Once bitten twice shy, Deuba doesn't want to give King Gyanendra another justification to sack him. He needs polls, any polls.

For now, Deuba's ministers are talking tough. "Elections are our mandate and moral obligation," Information Minister Mohmmad Mohsin told a radio interview on Wednesday, "It can be held, just look at Afghanistan. But if we can't hold elections we will step down."

In July, while reluctantly reappointing a prime minister he had fired, the king's terms of reference were: restore peace and go for elections by the end of 2061 BS. He didn't say hold talks. "Going by the king's conditions, this government simply does not have the mandate to hold talks with the rebels and the Maoists understand that," points out political scientist Krishna Khanal. Which may be why the rebels have rebuffed Deuba saying they will talk directly with his boss.

So, why did the government give the 13 January deadline to the rebels? It could have been a face-saving gesture on behalf of the main coalition partner, the UML, which has joined the government by staking all on its ability to restore peace.

Political analysts say the UML doesn't really have any other option but to stay on in government, and it would be more than happy to be at least partly in command of the state machinery in future polls. For Deuba, even a low turnout is good enough for legitimacy in the eyes of the international community and to prove to the king that he has fulfilled his mandate.

Deuba has reportedly got the assurance from the security apparatus that a multi-phase election is possible, and a nationwide average of up to 40 percent turnout can be assured.

Five-time prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa conducted the 1980 referendum in which he delivered a victory for the 'Panchayat with reforms' camp. He thinks elections can be held. "Practically it may be difficult, but technically it is possible to hold elections," Thapa told us, "but it is risky for Deubaji."

There are plenty of skeptics who doubt elections can ever be held in the current security situation. There are grave doubts that campaigning is possible and voting itself will be free and fair.

The Girija Congress likens Deuba conducting elections to a fox guarding the chicken coop, and it is playing up security uncertainties as a cover to oppose elections. But if Deuba announces poll dates next week, Girija will be in a dilemma about a boycott.

The real question is: will voters take the risk? Minister Mohsin has no doubt they will: "Just look at Dailekh, the people are waiting to exercise their democratic rights. Whoever obstructs the process will be seen as anti-democratic."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)