8-14 November 2013 #680

Biting the ballot

The country will go for polls on 19 November, but at what cost?
Anurag Acharya
On the misty morning of 30 October, Indian Border Security Force exchanged gunfire with two men bound on a motorcycle trying to enter Nepal through the border town of Bihar’s Sitamadhi opposite Sarlahi district. Whether the BSF got the two isn’t clear, but Indian intelligence passed on the information that the fleeing men were hired assassins paid to target Madhesi-leader Mahanta Thakur.

The Kathmandu media ignored the news, probably because it was too preoccupied with the festivities. What did get a lot of coverage was the assassination of a Muslim candidate from Bara district also shot dead by an Indian hitman hired by a political rival from his own party. There is a possibility that one of Thakur’s rivals could have been trying to do the same. We won’t know that until there is an investigation, but there is no word on one.

In the last two months, Nepal’s graph of political violence has spiked. Two trends are clearly visible: first, violence instigated by boycotting political parties led by the CPN-M to upset voter registration and other election related activities. The second type of violence are planned assaults on election candidates by rivals within the parties or others taking part in elections. Nearly all election related security debate is centred only around the former.

Political parties including the Nepali Congress, UML, and UCPN-Maoists have clashed in several districts during the election campaign with daily reports of confrontations. You can now follow the Citizen’s Campaign for Clean Election (CCCE) on Facebook and Twitter for feeds on violence as it happens. Socket and pressure cooker bombs have been found at rallies, probably laid by the CPN-M, but seem to be designed more to scare people than kill them. There have been arson attacks on campaign vehicles, fist fights, and abductions of rival cadre.?

The violence is expected to escalate further in the 10-day closure the Maoists have called in the run-up to election day. However, the reactive way that the security apparatus has behaved doesn’t inspire much confidence. So far, the Home Ministry still seems to be treating the situation on the ground as a political one.

A few days back, the National Security Council Secretariat submitted a confidential security analysis report to the Chairman of Council of Ministers Khil Raj Regmi advising the government to find a way to get the boycotters to call off their action. The long and short of it is, the heads of Nepal’s security agencies who are part of the council, are not too happy about having to deal with the CPN-Maoists with their hands tied. The Army deployment is only psychological; no one expects them to go after the CPN-M with their guns blazing. The APF and Army chiefs have politely asked the government to clear the political arena themselves, advising Regmi to seek help from actors within political parties, civil society, and the international community.

On Wednesday, United Nations Resident Coordinator for Nepal Jamie McGoldrick took the unusual step of issuing a press statement on behalf of international missions in Kathmandu including India, China, Britain, United States, EU, and others, urging anti-poll groups to respect democratic rights of the public to take part in the elections. Interestingly, the Home Ministry had come out with a list of 16 districts deemed sensitive in terms of electoral security of which 10 are Tarai districts with very low influence of Baidya-led Maoists.

We are less than two weeks away from the polls, yet there is a looming fear and an air of uncertainty about the final week and the polling day itself. The question is not ‘if’ there will be elections, but under what circumstances and at what cost they will be held.

The Election Commission claims it has made a comprehensive security arrangement for the polls with an unprecedented number of security personnel and mobilisation of Nepal Army for the first time in the country’s electoral history. But it has yet to tell us against whom we need such heavy protection: rival parties contesting polls, those picketing against it, or those standing in the shadows with their own vested interest.

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