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Déjà vu at election time

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Bhojraj Pokharel’s book on the 2008 polls is a handbook for conducting post-conflict elections, and has lessons for November


As Chief Election Commissioner, Bhojraj Pokharel was at the centre of things during the iffy period of elections in 2007-8, and he has lots of stories to tell.

Nepal Votes for Peace could be a manual for other countries conducting elections after violent conflict, and tries to set the record straight about the first election in the world which a Maoist party had contested and won.

Book Cover 1 copy copy

Pokharel kept a daily diary of the period but lost it,and had to rewrite everything from scratch while on a sabbatical at Harvard. The book, co-authored with peace researcher Shrishti Rana, could have been more tightly edited and better organised. It has frequent and distracting references to the ‘Chief’ whenever Pokharel cuts away to quote himself in his own book. But it contains insights into the difficulties of conducting elections at a time of political deficit.

The main message is that one cannot be rigid about rules in a post-conflict election. “The peace process was more important than the election, so we were driven by politics and not by electoral technicalities,” Pokharel explained to me this week.

Pokharel considered himself a “manager”, or “an umpire in a game between unequal teams” because one of the protagonists still had an army. The Maoists had to be repeatedly appeased. For example, they threatened to walk out if they didn’t get the hammer and sickle election symbol. “In a normal election, a lot of the things we did would have been unacceptable,” Pokharel admits now.

Elections were set for June 2007 and postponed twice mainly because political parties, as now, were scared of losing. The Maoists demanded full PR and declaration of a republic, there were disagreements over threshold, constituencies, number of seats – all going to prove how little electoral politics have progressed in five years.

With the benefit of hindsight, Pokharel would have done some things differently. The authors heap fulsome praise on UNMIN and Ian Martin, but one has to read between the lines to gauge how reluctant UNMIN was to investigate intimidation and threats by cantonment Maoists. Martin first tells Pokharel the allegations can’t be investigated because no formal complaint was lodged, and later says parties to the peace process did not give UNMIN the mandate for enforcement actions. The book confirms India’s role in terminating UNMIN with an Indian ambassador referring to it as a ‘white elephant’.

Pokharel admits there were irregularities on E-Day, and notes ‘allegations’ that Baburam Bhattarai got more votes than there were voters in his Gorkha constituency. Positive reports from election observation missions helped the EC create pressure on all parties to accept the election results. Pokharel concludes: ‘I admit elections were not perfect. Yet it achieved what was intended – making the former rebels accept the democratic process and put away their weapons forever.’

As it turned out, the Maoists would have won by a larger majority if they hadn’t insisted on a mixed system, and the NC would have benefited if it hadn’t opposed the Maoist demand for more PR seats. Everyone miscalculated, and most of all the Maoists who never expected to win.

The Constituent Assembly was the most representative elected legislature in Nepal’s history. Nepal was the first Asian country to have one-third women in parliament, but only 10 per cent of the candidates who got party tickets were women, including the Maoists. Pokharel quips: ‘It seemed women were good enough to be soldiers but not election candidates.’

Pokharel and Rana interviewed most important players. An Indian ambassador complains about political leaders begging him to make them prime minister “even for a few days”. A chain-smoking Gyanendra confides in English that he is financially insecure. Maoist Chairman Dahal admits his personal misgivings about federalism. GirijaKoirala comes across as a man worried about his legacy, and trying till the end to retain some form of monarchy despite his deep distrust of Gyanendra.He tells the authors: “It’s not about winning or losing, only dictators win every election.”

The Nepali people voted wisely, giving the Maoists the edge but not enough of a majority to write a constitution on their own. Pokharel and Rana present a list of lessons learnt from the 2008 polls: suggesting a threshold of 2 per cent in future polls, allowing pre-election public opinion surveys, requiring parties to field at least one-third women, including a ‘no vote’ option in ballot papers, having only three non-political election commissioners, and even using drones for surveillance of voting centres.

Pokharel concludes that despite flaws the elections were a step forward. The country took two steps back by squandering the opportunity, however, and the tragedy is that the politicians still haven’t learnt anything.

Nepal: Votes for Peace
BhojrajPokharel and ShristhiRana
Cambridge University Press India
Foundation Books, 2013
266 pages, INR 450

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