Nepali Times
Guest Column
Some past the post



The election has got off to an iffy start, and if the Sunday bombings in the capital are any indication, they underline two serious questions. First, is it going to be the blame game all over again? Will parties be running each other down rather than promoting their own agenda? Second, what do the polls mean to the parties: an opportunity to draft a constitution or to form a government?

The constituent assembly will also work as a legislative assembly, which means it will elect a government. But this role is secondary. To the party leaders and their cadre, it is a zero-sum game to win indefinite power.

For instance, the UML wants to say we are the most organized party so we will win the elections. The NC is trying to unite so it can cash in on a fractious left.

Any discussion about the constitution these parties are supposed to formulate has figured nowhere. The Maoists intend to win through a combination of fear tactics and support from the masses. To achieve this end they can be expected to use crude musclepower.

The attraction of being in power is tremendous: the legitimate and illegitimate possession of public assets, state coffers, rent-seeking, distributing favours, and bhagbanda. During the last 17 years, the parties have used state power to perpetuate the status quo and oversee the emergence of a political neo-rich class at the expense of the poor.

Crafting a constitution is not a lucrative undertaking so the parties are looking beyond at how the constituent assembly will determine the power balance in government.

Voter education is a job best left to the Election Commission, the media, and the civil society groups. The polarised political parties can't be relied on to do that objectively. The mainstream political parties are surprisingly quiet on the most important issues the forthcoming constitution is supposed to address. Most don't even have manifestos on how they propose to restructure the state. They are fuzzy on the issue of ethnic federalism and power sharing. These are issues on which the parties have to work together to resolve, not make it a subject of one-upmanship at election time.

They must agree on the universal tenets of democracy, on a balance between the sovereignty and integrity of the country and the aspirations of separate identity among various ethnic, regional, and linguistic groups. They must have a plan to include rights to education and health, and on the constitutional tools for social inclusion. This will enable them to single out and isolate the anti-national, anti-democratic, and the regressive forces. Regrettably, the parties aren't doing anything of this kind, and don't seem to be geared to doing so. The parties seem to have forgotten that even if they win the election with an absolute majority they can't have their sole say in the making of a new constitution.

The winner can't take all. The constituent assembly election is an opportunity for the ethnic, regional, or linguistic groups to ensure their fare share in state functioning. For some it may be an opportunity to secede, for the Maoists it may offer the pretext to return to the jungle. For the king it may be a way to exit gracefully and save the monarchy. For NC and the UML it may be one more opportunity not to repeat their mistakes in the 1990s. The choice is theirs.

Jainendra Jeevan is a bureaucrat and a freelance columnist.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)