25-31 October 2013 #678

Free, fair and fear-free

High political stakes and polarised sentiment threaten to undermine electoral integrity and security
Anurag Acharya
Five years after the election of the first Constituent Assembly and 18 months after its unceremonious demise, the country will give it another try in three weeks. Despite general cynicism about repeating an exercise that ‘failed’ to live up to its expectations, people are hopeful that the next CA will build on the work done so far to deliver a new constitution. But more than anything else, that hope hinges on conducting free, fair, and fear-free polls.

This week, all major parties including the Nepali Congress, UCPN-Maoist, CPN-UML, MJFNepal, and other Madhes-based parties unveiled their election manifestos. No surprise that each party has blamed the other for the CA’s failure. UML dedicated only four pages in its manifesto to explaining itsvision on the new constitution, which tells a lot about what the party has (or doesn’t have) tooffer. The UML is in favour of a directly-elected executive prime minister and a constitutionalpresident, but is tight lipped on state restructuring.

The NC has gone a step ahead, but proposed a dubious7-13 model, stating that it is ‘flexible’ on both. On governance, the party is in favour of retaining the existing parliamentary model. Both theNC and UML fear Janajati and Madhesi backlash because of which their manifestos only mention multiple-identity, national-unity, and harmony without going into any specifics for restructuring.

The Maoists are in favour of a directly-elected executive president cohabiting with a parliament-elected prime minister to run day-today governance. On state restructuring, the Maoists have proposed the same model that was recommended by Madan Pariyar led State Restructuring Commission with addition of Kochila Pradesh in the East. Most Madhes based parties are in favour of two states in Madhes except for the Upendra Yadav led MJFNepal, which is still harping about ‘one-Madhes’, possibly to appease Madhesi voters as well as armed groups who have been targeting party leaders.

The last CA was dissolved due to dubious and rigid positions of the parties on issues like state structure and form of governance. Unless there is dramatic shift in that behaviour, the next CA will fare no better. However, it is interesting to note that the parties seem to be getting more flexible to accommodate the identity aspirations of various communities. Being a communist party, the Maoists would ideally prefer a centralised state and governance, however, along with the Madhesi parties, they seem to be the biggest advocates of federalism, which favours an empowered local government besides directly elected strong central leadership. At its best, this model could strengthen grassroots democracy as well as bring much needed political stability in the country. But unless there are strong checks and balances, it may also lead to totalitarianism.

Similarly, by acknowledging historical wrongs and calling for a change, the NC has taken a fresh departure from its earlier position that parliamentary democracy was thriving until one party decided to wage war against it. But its insistence on the present model of parliamentary democracy is at odds with this understanding. Unlike the UML, Maoists, and the Madhesi parties, the NC opposes a directly elected executive at the centre and this hinges on a fear of one party, or one man, capturing state power.

A peaceful CA election could pave the way for closure of this long drawn peace process with a constitution. However, given the high political stakes and polarised sentiments, we had warned that there is imminent danger of an upsurge in violence in the weeks ahead.

There have been violent clashes among and between campaigning parties and agitating ones in several districts with the CPN-Maoists burning campaign material and vandalising vehicles. Dozens have been injured and many candidates don’t feel safe campaigning. A UML candidate was shot dead in Bara on 4 October. The parties are also openly violating electoral codes of conduct during campaigning and the use of unregistered Indian vehicles in border district has become commonplace.

The Election Commission has promised stronger monitoring and the mobilisation of Nepal Army is supposed to improve electoral security. But punitive measures are deterrents and do not inspire ethical behaviour in parties and candidates who are reducing a democratic exercise into a rat race where winner takes all.

The candidates and the parties seem to require the EC’s education program more than the voters.

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