The Tense Nepali Polls
Nepal finally conducted the much-awaited elections on November 19 in the midst of heightening tensions which were being seen as critical to the country’s stability and development.
Voters chose a new Constituent Assembly following the dissolution of the last one in May 2012 after failing to produce a much-anticipated post-war constitution. It was hoped that the previous Assembly would come up with a new constitution to help the country emerge from the 1996-2006 civil war that killed more than 15,000 people but it failed mainly due to the contentious issues relating to the structure of the State and sharing of power.
The current polls were criticized by some for failing to register all the eligible approximately 16 million voters. 12.5 million were registered, leaving a significant section of the population disenfranchised.
The elections were marred by an opposition alliance which attempted to obstruct election-related activities, threatening to prolong the country’s political instability. As a result, the army was deployed for the first time to provide electoral security since fighting ended. An opposition 33-party alliance held a 10-day nationwide transportation strike which led up to the November 19 polls. The CPN-Maoists and their allies conducted doorto-door campaigns to dissuade people from participating in the elections, burnt copies of the election code and enforced local transportation strikes. Cadres of the two Maoist parties clashed violently in some cases.
At times it appeared, in the words of the former chief election commissioner who oversaw the country’s first national post-conflict poll in 2008, “… as if Nepal was going into a war rather than an election. Elections are civilian affairs conducted to manage conflict in a society, and not lead to conflicts.”
The country’s 240-year old Hindu monarchy, which Maoist rebels had been fighting in the decade-long conflict, ended with the 2008 national election. A 601member Constituent Assembly was elected. Women won 33 percent of the seats, with 39 females elected coming from the Dalit community, the marginalized, historically lowest caste in the country.
The Assembly, however, failed in its principal mis- sion to draft a new constitution, despite being given four extensions. A caretaker government led by Maoist PM Baburam Bhattarai came to power. Shortly after the dissolution, a breakaway party led by Mohan Baidya split from the mainstream Maoists, accusing party leaders of surrendering too much during the peace process, including disbanding the People’s Liberation Army.
Unable to forge consensus on when to hold elections, Bhattarai stepped down in March 2013 and, in a controversial move, Supreme Court Chief Justice Khilraj Regmi became the head of government. The latter, with the support of the four major political parties, announced the November 19 poll date. The Communist Party of Nepal (CPN)-Maoist breakaway party then allied with an alliance of 33 small parties, to protest the election.
Nepal is a beautiful country. Its capital, Kathmandu, has been called a museum without walls. For 2,500 years the Newars, its inhabitants, created countless masterpieces of Buddhist and Hindu art, whose fame travelled far, via the strategic trade route between northern India and Tibet. The great flowering of art and ideas, and resulting wealth, closed in on itself when in 1850 under Rana rule, Nepal adopted a policy of deliberate political isolation, which lasted a century. Since 1952, Nepal has been making bold strides to catch up with the rest of the world while striving to maintain its own cultural identity.
Its political leadership, however, has not been meeting the expectations of the electorate. There is political stagnation and the constitutional crisis has contributed to the steady and continued erosion of the rule of law, stalling development and choking off access to justice for the people. Many Nepalis voted but remained skeptical that the same people will end up in power, This is the problem with Nepal – the voters make the same people powerful, and they stay interested in power only, not improving the country. Sounds familiar?