The centrist Nepali Congress and UML shouldn’t see this as a winner-takes-all mandate
Nepal’s silent majority has spoken, it has rejected violence and given moderate centrist parties one more chance to prove themselves. In their collective wisdom the voters have also thrown out many of the liars and thieves, electing a crop of fresh and untested young leaders. The high turnout was a strong message to the boycotting CPN-M and support for the traditional moderate parties was an unequivocal rejection of the politics of ethnicity of the non-performing UCPN (M) and Madhesi parties.
The people have also rejected radicals from both the left and right. While the monarchist RPP-N has accepted the verdict, taking solace in a strong showing in the PR ballot, the Maoists have once more proven their true colours by crying foul and resorting to threats and blackmail. In 2008, the people voted for the Maoists but not exactly for the Maoist agenda: it was a vote for peace, a new constitution, and change. But when the people found out that the comrades were even more greedy and corrupt than the NC and UML, they threw them out.
The writing was on the wall, as many public opinion surveys in the past five years by this newspaper and others had shown (Read: Democracy's guerrillas and Going Local). The people are interested more in bread and butter issues like health, education, jobs, and roads. They want accountable leaders with integrity, they are less than enthusiastic about secularism, and they think federalism based on single ethnicity is a bad idea. Even people from the indigenous communities and the Tarai felt that way, but the Maoists and the Madhesi parties went ahead and made those issues their main plank showing just how out of touch they were.
So, the age of violence in politics is over. This is the age of persuasion and performance. The people don’t want to be treated as fools and fed empty slogans, they are alert and know exactly what is going on, who is lying and stealing.
In their euphoria of victory and overblown vermilion rallies, the NC and UML may think that the table has turned and they can go back to their winner-takes-all behaviour. The people remember only too well the political paralysis of the NC-UML rivalry in the 1990s. Some of the more spectacularly corrupt and opportunist leaders from that era, unfortunately, have somehow managed to get themselves elected this time too.
The first test of whether the NC and UML have turned a new leaf will be if they resort to their dog-eat-dog rivalry in the formation of a new government in the coming weeks. It also remains to be seen how the Deuba and Koirala factions of the NC work out a power-sharing deal. If the past is any indication, they will be fighting tooth-and-nail very soon.
The CA’s mandate is to write a new constitution within 12 months and behave as a parliament for the next five years. The election results do not mean we can go back to an exclusivist, centralised polity. If the past five years have taught us anything it is that we must decentralise decision-making and devolve political power to the regions.
Call it federalism if you want, but it means reviving the process of community-led development by elected local representatives that had begun in the mid-1990s. Only this time we need to build in inclusion of the disenfranchised and marginalised into local elected structures. For that, the first order of business is to conduct local elections. Nepal needs to get its politics back on track so investment-led growth and infrastructure can create jobs, just like it had started happening in the early 1990s.
The first Constituent Assembly was deadlocked over the boundaries and names of federal provinces. In a country with 126 ethnic groups and 123 languages, this has to be done with care, redressing historical exclusion of the underserved while preserving and strengthening national unity. Only devolution of political power out of Kathmandu will guarantee equity and balanced development.
Going Local, DAMBAR KRISHNA SHRESTHA
Democracy’s guerrillas, AJAZ ASHRAF