7-13 June 2013 #659

Including the excluded

The only way to justify Nepal’s painfully long transition is to ensure election rules that level the playing field
Anurag Acharya
Establishing a date for elections has been delayed because of disagreements over a bill to delineate electoral constituencies and set a threshold for proportional representation. At the heart of the disagreement is the desire of the main political players to keep monopolising power.

After the Madhes Movement of 2007, the first amendment to the Interim Constitution in April that year provided for delineation of electoral constituencies through changes in Article 154, according to which constituencies were to be determined taking into account the structure of population and its density, geographical uniqueness, and accessibility as well as cultural identity of those who reside there.

But the delineating committee already had its work cut out. The amendment to Article 63, among other things prohibited changes to existing administrative boundaries and mandated that existing number of electoral seats in each district may be not be reduced. So the committee only had the jurisdiction of delineating constituencies in 20 districts of Madhes and five mountain districts where population had increased. The committee set a threshold of 94,000 voters per electoral representative in these districts which resulted in increased seats of 240 from the existing 205.

“The added seats increased the number of representatives, but it did not necessarily lead to inclusive representation because the first amendment prevented changes in the existing administrative boundaries essential to the task,” anthropologist Dambar Chemjong, who was part of the delineation committee, explained to me the other day.

The committee came across a big constituency of Chepangs in Dhading, Makwanpur, Chitwan, and Gorkha. It met all the constitutional requisites of forming a constituency including geographical continuity and cultural uniqueness. But since Article 63 prevented making any changes in the existing administrative boundaries, it could not be delineated. There was a similar case in Saptari where a potential constituency for Tarai dalits could have been carved out.

Chemjong says population alone must not be the basis for delineating constituencies in a country with varied demographic structure as well as geographic and cultural diversity. If that is the case, there is a need to redefine Nepal’s administrative boundaries consistent with our search for an inclusive representative body.

Last month, responding to a writ petition filed by JP Gupta, the Supreme Court directed the government to form another delineation committee to recommend changes in the number of constituencies based on data from the 2011 census. But as long as Article 63 is in effect, such exercise will only benefit metropolis districts like Kathmandu and Lalitpur with high population density without serving the interests of under-represented and sparsely populated mountain districts, or marginalised communities that have a distinct geographical presence, but are separated by arbitrarily drawn administrative boundaries.

In the last CA, out of 601 members, 335 were chosen from proportional representation from marginalised communities making it the most inclusive legislature in our history. The reason it failed to come up with a statute is a matter of debate where perspectives differ. But the exclusivist political top brass blamed the size of the CA and decided to reduce PR seats to 240 in the 11-point agreement signed in March.

Nepal is gearing for another Constituent Assembly election, but more than seven million voters still remain without voting cards, while nearly two million absent voters are at risk of being denied their fundamental right to be represented.

Similarly, the controversy over the one per cent threshold required for smaller parties to gain PR seats in the CA has also contributed to the delay in passing the electoral bill. While it is a globally accepted practice to have a threshold in a PR system, out of the 56 political parties that competed in the last CA elections, 47 obtained less than one per cent of the popular votes. They won only one direct seat in the Assembly, but received 33 PR seats and two through nominations.

Most of the parties in this category had ethnic, regional, and cultural background with a stated agenda of representation. This reflected the failure of bigger political parties to incorporate marginalised voices in their ranks and that reluctance to include the excluded persists.

Nepal has been in transition for seven years now. The only way to justify this painfully long exercise is to come up with a political document that is owned by groups across political, cultural, and regional boundaries. But for that to happen, we need to ensure an inclusive body that can empathise with the most repressed and muted aspirations.?

Read other columns by Anurag Acharya

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