Nepali Times
State Of The State
Fig-leaf elections


Like in most of the developing world, polls in Nepal are barely free and seldom fair even under the best of circumstances. Instances of outright intimidation of voters, as in the Indian state of Bihar for example, may be rare here. But that is because inducement makes coercion unnecessary. The government machinery can often influence the outcome of an election to its advantage without having to steal it outright.

Having been a prominent beneficiary of managed elections in the past, premier Sher Bahadur Deuba knows the advantage of conducting parliamentary elections with a cooperative administration and supportive army running the show.

Premier Deuba's cabinet colleagues in his breakaway faction of the Nepali Congress realise that the political ground under their feet isn't very firm. Ministers Bimalendra Nidhi and Prakash Man Singh lost past elections despite having illustrious daddies. Their eagerness for polls at any cost is understandable.

Political opportunism is the hallmark of the ex-Panchas in the RPP and the Badri Mandal faction of Sadbhabana. Never a believer in free and fair polls, former Panchas like Minister Balaram Gharti Magar know that they are better off in a stage-managed election. Even better if such polls can be held under their own stewardship.

Unencumbered by ideology, they will sail with the wind and sing praises of authoritarianism if need be.

In post-1990 politics, the UML has perfected the art of saying something in public and then doing the exact opposite. Its 'critical support' for the constitution ended up undermining it. Had Madhab Nepal seen in 2002 that Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba was jumping off a cliff by dissolving parliament, he wouldn't be in the predicament he is in today. But having a reputation for political hypocrisy has its own advantages.

UML ministers sit pretty, endorsing the cabinet decision to issue poll threats and then issuing press statements that polls are impossible without peace. It's a clever game of heads you lose and tails we win. Sometimes being too clever by half has its own hazards. Aware of risks, prominent ministers of UML are busy securing their own future.

As expected, the Maoists have rejected elections outright. A government that can't keep national highways open, whose security forces are barely able to protect their own barracks, and which has neither the will nor the capacity to initiate peace talks with insurgents can't be expected to hold elections except as an excuse to prolong its life or to legitimise hybrid authoritarianism.

A regime that engineered the dissolution of parliament and let the term of elected local councils lapse can't be expected to form them again without having its own interests and dominance fully secured. It seems the only stakeholders serious about forthcoming polls are Nepal's donors. They want the legitimacy so badly that they are ready to accept any polls as long as they are held. The argument is that if Sri Lanka, Kashmir and Afghanistan can hold elections why can't Sindhupalchok, Kabhre or Argakhanchi?

For a vast section of Nepalis, their representatives are still the last resort to get anything done by Kathmandu back home in the districts. Elected representatives may not be able to do anything to help constituents, but even giving a patient hearing is often therapeutic.

Insisting on an election at all cost may cost not just democracy, but the very stability of the state itself. The priority should be peace-building but the parties in power seem to have lost the will to pursue it in right earnest. That can mean only one thing: they have become irrelevant and can be shown the door without any adverse fallout.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)