29 March-4 April 2013 #649

Maybe not June

All indications are that the Election Commission and the political apparatus will not be able to get their act together for polls in three months

You can’t figure out what is really happening in Nepal these days by listening to the politicians. Reading, watching or listening to the media isn’t much help either. You find out what is happening by what a leader doesn’t say. In fact, the opposite of what a politician says is usually true.

When all the main leaders show rare unity by vowing to hold elections by June, you can be pretty sure it is not going to happen. At a meeting this week between the Chairman Khil Raj Regmi of the Interim Election Council and his newly appointed Election Commissioners, it was quite clear that the chances of kosher elections being held in June are becoming more problematic by the day.

In his first week in office, Chief Election Commissioner Nilkantha Upreti spent most of his time figuring out how much time he needs to prepare for polls. He faces logistical, constitutional, and technical hurdles that make it highly unlikely that elections, even if they are held in June, will be the kind that will take us to a CA that can write a constitution and guarantee stability.

The main premise in setting up the Regmi regime was to untangle the political knot by conducting elections. The polls are seen by many as a panacea, but a bruising campaign can further aggravate political polarisation if conducted with insufficient preparation. In normal times, the EC needs 120 days to hold elections after the date is announced, but these are not normal times.

The first thing the EC has to work on is to prepare a voters’ list and lay out the rules for voting. Although the 11-point agreement between the parties allows for the children of those who got citizenship in 2007-8 to vote without photo IDs, the Supreme Court has clearly ruled that those without citizenship papers should not vote. Then the Interim Constitution needs to be amended to allow the nearly 2 million voters who turned 18 after the 2008 elections. These measures are contentious, in a legal grey zone, and need to be passed by presidential ordinance.

The parties have agreed to a 491-member CA this time with 240 directly elected and 240 through proportional representation and another 11 members nominated by political parties. The security forces have insisted that elections be held in two phases. End-June is smack at the beginning of the monsoon and could present logistical issues.

The greatest uncertainty has been created by the CPN-M and other smaller parties which say they will not just boycott elections but also disrupt them. Then there are the larger questions of what difference elections are going to make this time when there has been no progress in finding a common ground on sensitive issues of federalism and state structure that stymied the CA last time. But we may just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

Ex-US president Jimmy Carter is due here and the most important message he can give policy makers is to ensure that this time (unlike in 2008 when he prematurely declared voting free and fair) all stakeholders are committed to holding elections that are free from fear. He should try not to force elections in June if the EC and the parties are not ready and he should be reminded that Nepali leaders will again tell him what he wants to hear and not what they really want.