These are ironic and difficult times. Here is a breakaway faction of the ruling party that held a political gathering that it called a "convention", declared the prime minister party president, and along the way violated every rule in the book. The official media was used to justify and defend this action, to mislead and misinform the public. The abuse of state machinery to coerce those who did not agree may be an indication of what lies ahead. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has, for as long as I have known him, been a man with democratic credentials. How these things are happening under his leadership, I cannot explain.
In the absence of a functioning parliament, parliamentary committees, and other checks available in normal times these goings-on, paradoxically, happened under a democratic constitution. The emergency clamped to deal with the problem of terrorism, but the axe is falling somewhere else.
The dissolution of the House came as a complete surprise to us. As a matter of fact, we had not even discussed the possibility of elections while I was in government. We never foresaw such a situation, and could never imagine holding elections in the present situation. Nor did we ever think that a mid-term election would offer a solution to the country's problems. I sensed that something was deeply wrong, and stepped down.
The country was headed on a serious and uncertain political trajectory, and there was no justification for dissolving the House and announcing elections. Local elections couldn't be held, and even the recent school exams were confined to district headquarters. Seeking a fresh mandate, therefore, just didn't make sense. Armed groups rule the countryside, no political party is able to hold public meetings outside the district headquarters, there is no free movement of people and civil rights have been curtailed. Disarming the Maoists is the first precondition to holding free and fair elections.
The economic burden of general elections is even more scary. The direct costs of the election in 1999 was about Rs 600 million, including security. This time, with the added cost of security and the Election Commission the November polls will cost the exchequer more than Rs 3 billion. With the present state of the economy, we just cannot afford it.
The government's finances are in a very fragile state. Only with strict financial discipline and prudent management, were we able to contain the deficit and ensure macro-economic stability, thus keeping international confidence and support. The price tag of the elections will throw the precarious fiscal balance asunder.
The Royal Nepal Army has been doing a splendid job militarily in weakening the Maoists, but the problem of terrorism is far from over. The army should have been allowed to continue with the momentum they have gained, but their primary responsibility will have to be diverted to provide security to candidates, polling booths, election personnel, and voters.
Then there is the question of the Nepali Congress split and who gets to carry the flag. We tried our best to prevent a formal split in the party by reconciling government with party. We had also proposed a small, well-balanced, and clean government. The patch-up formula included a face-saving way for the prime minister to express regret for dissolving the house, in return for which the party would withdraw its expulsion order. We made some progress, but everything fell apart at the last moment because neither side was willing to give in. I still have not lost hope of a party unification, although now it will be more difficult and time-consuming. There will be a place for everybody in the party to work with dignity, including Mr Deuba.
There is no doubt that the Election Commission will award the Congress election symbol to the party led by Girija Prasad Koirala. Prime Minister Deuba just does not have the legitimacy to be party president. If his faction was to get the party symbol or even if the Election Commission decides to freeze the symbol to favour him, it would be a mockery of justice and the rule of law. And that would indicate a serious threat to the democratic process.
This country now needs to create new space to allow democratic institutions to regenerate. The influence of wrong elements in politics at the party level has been the main factor leading to poor service delivery and high corruption. Party leaders have politicised institutions, and created fiefdoms of power brokers in political parties. Only strong political will, enlightened leadership and statesmanship can deal with this.
There are several ways out of the present mess. There is a possibility that parliament will be restored and there are strong legal and constitutional arguments for this. The constitution provides that the life of the House of Representatives can be extended by one year during extraordinary circumstances like these. Clearly, the constitution rules out elections under an emergency situation. The only body to monitor and check on the abuse of authority during an emergency period is the parliament. It is my hope and belief that the court will order the restoration of the House of Representatives. Only if this does not happen will elections be an option. And if it comes to that we have no choice but to go to the people.
There are some who would not be averse to a benevolent authority figure to ensure development and better governance. But if the present trend continues things can get much worse unless there is proper accountability, necessary checks and balances, and parliamentary oversight.
Let us be clear: there is no alternative to the rule of law. There is no alternative to civil rights. There is no alternative to a functioning parliament. There is no alternative to the full respect for human and civil rights. All these insinuations about a royal takeover are ridiculous. His Majesty the King is a very enlightened and well-meaning monarch committed to the present constitution. Democracy will prevail in the end, and for this our democratic institutions will have to be vibrant and effective once more.
(Ram Sharan Mahat was Finance Minister in the Deuba cabinet and resigned on 23 May.)