22-28 February 2013 #644

Agree to disagree

CJ as the head of the electoral government will only make sense if the parties agree not to disagree about polls end-May
Anurag Acharya
The unlocking of political horns by appointing the chief justice as the head of an election government, although unpalatable to many, is still welcome. It was not just the best of the worst options, it was the only option.

Politics, as someone said, is the art of the possible. When all other alternatives, from a consensus government led by Baburam Bhattarai to one led by Sushil Koirala, failed to gain acceptance there really was no other way. Politics must overcome barriers to keep the affairs of state running. And when the issue at hand is about ensuring continuity to democracy through franchise, the CJ card was the only one left on the table. Critics of the formula may have a valid point about separation of powers, but they must also be able to offer a solution.

The country has been without an elected body for almost a year, there haven’t been national elections for eight years and local elections for 13 years. The drafting of the constitution which was an integral part of the agreement that brought an end to the war is in limbo. Important bills are stuck at Shital Niwas and the electorate has become a silent bystander to endless political squabbling. This cannot go on, and if it takes a technocratic government to reinstate republican order, so be it.

Undoubtedly, this is a desperate move by parties who have cancelled each other out by their single-minded obsession with power. But it would be an exaggeration to say that democratic politics has failed in this country.

A few months ago, Sushil Koirala whom some see as a leader of the ‘democratic forces’ against Maoist ‘authoritarianism’ was charged with having sold out when he was proposed as the consensus candidate by Pushpa Kamal Dahal. In 2011, when Jhala Nath Khanal became the prime minister he was publicly labelled a Maoist puppet by fellow comrades Madhav Nepal and KP Oli. Now, Justice Regmi is accused of being a Maoist henchman.

To understand why successive governments after 2008 have been unable to deliver what they set out to do requires deeper analysis of the interim constitution and the political backdrop in which the governments came to power. Article 43 (1) of the interim constitution mandates that all government decisions be consistent with the spirit of the People’s Movement and as per political consensus among the parties. While the spirit of the movement has been elaborately laid out in the preface, the constitution is silent on what amounts to consensus. The lack of clear authority and jurisdiction has been used by the opposition to bash the Maoist-led coalition which has been blamed for the dissolution of the CA, even when it was all the political parties which were in perpetual disagreement. If a future electoral government is to ensure timely elections, it has to be given a clear mandate and delegated the requisite authority to do what it needs to hold free, fair, and timely polls. For that to happen, the parties must agree not to hold the elections hostage to their incessant bickering.

Chances are that disagreements over forms of governance, state restructuring, and the content of the Truth and Reconciliation and Disappearance Commissions will erupt again in the new Constituent Assembly, and again stall the new statute. But people want the parties to resolve those issues in the chambers, and not play politics with them on the streets.

The powers that may be have agreed to appoint the CJ as the head of the electoral government, but the devil is in the details. The decision has not been owned by many of their own leaders, and the fringe parties are angered by their exclusion. The CJ has refused to become a rubber stamp for the all-party mechanism which seeks to run the country de facto. Then there are practical and logistical difficulties in holding elections by May or June.

Luckily for the people, parties in the government as well as in the opposition are doomed to cooperate as long as the present Interim Constitution exists. So for their own sake and the sake of the people, they must go for elections at the earliest.

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