The first round of elections to parliament and provincial assemblies passed off peacefully. But the public response was stunningly indifferent: What change can the same set of leaders, who pushed the country to the brink of disaster in the past one decade of transition, usher in if elected to office.
However, there is visible interest in the neighbourhood — in China and India — and the distant West in the election. A huge contingent of 123 election observers from the European Union have already arrived in Nepal for a “comprehensive assessment” of the polls. They intend to stay till the government is formed. What does this mean? It confirms the influence external players have wielded in Nepal’s internal politics, its prolonged transition to a democratic republic, as well as the peace process. All the while, the Nepali people felt sidelined that they were not allowed a direct role in deciding the country’s unanticipated shift to a secular republic from being a Hindu kingdom 11 years ago.
The ongoing elections is the first under the new constitution. However, the scepticism of the public to the poll process and the disregard of major political parties to constitutional values reveal that the completion of the election is no assurance for Nepal’s political stability and durability of the constitution.
Nearly five million Nepali workers, most of them young, employed in blue-collar jobs abroad, mainly the Gulf, contribute 30 per cent of the national economy through remittances. They have been excluded from the poll process. So are seven lakh government employees, including those in the security forces deployed on election duty. Together, they constitute almost a half of the electorate — according to the latest official data, the electorate is about 14 million.
No one, including international observers, seems concerned about this huge “disenfranchisement”. The Madhes-based Rastriya Janata Party, which unconditionally withdrew its two-year-long boycott of the constitution to participate in the election, asserts in its manifesto that Nepal is a multi-national state. All that it indicates is the RJP, which was once backed by India, has moved closer to the agenda of Scandinavian and some other European countries. But the RJP is no more than a fringe party and is unlikely to have a major impact on Nepal’s political course post elections.
The Nepali Congress, the country’s biggest party that also heads the current coalition government, asserts that it will pursue a “balanced neighbourhood policy” to secure the support of both China and India in Nepal’s development. However, the Left Alliance comprising the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Nepal Communist Party-Maoist Centre adopted a unambiguously anti-India and pro-China posture during the campaign.
The Maoists have reasons to feel obliged to India, which thrust them to the political centrestage after years in the underground. Surely, the CPN-Maoist Centre is not as vocally anti-India as the CPN-UML. But the Maoists and the UML have come out with a common manifesto and are determined to work together in the government. Both assert that Nepal’s “unequal treaties” with India will be scrapped, a reference to the 1950 treaty of peace and friendship.
K.P. Oli, the shadow prime minister of the Left Alliance, has focussed on four different issues in his campaign. He has claimed that Nepal will no more have to suffer as it did during India’s blockade of the transit routes because he signed a transit treaty with China during his tenure as prime minister. He has also said the 1,200MW Budhi Gandaki Hydro Project contract, scrapped by the current government, will be restored to Gejuwa, a Chinese company. The LA has campaigned hard on India’s blockade of Nepal. No party bothered to offer a counter view.
India, which tried to micromanage Nepal’s affairs, at times brazenly, during the past decade, appears unsure about the emerging situation. China, however, has repeatedly said it wants political and regime stability in Nepal and has appreciated the election process. India, perhaps, is worried about the stridently anti-Indian stance a future LA government is likely to adopt. There are contradictions within the LA, of course. The UML, in the past, has been a votary of Nepal signing the “Rome statute”, which would mean inviting the International Criminal Court of Justice to try the human rights violation cases of the Maoist insurgency era. Maoist leaders have sought general amnesty in such cases, which, ironically, may defeat the peace process and discredit the political changes that followed.
There is a week left for the second round of the polls. The nearly three dozen explosions targeting top leaders of the major parties including the Maoists — one of them were injured — may deter the ordinary voters in the next phase. The consensus is that this election at Rs 100 billion could be the costliest poll Nepal has seen. The expenses, certainly, are way above the authorised ceiling of Rs 25 lakh; the estimated expense per voter is approximately Rs 6,000. All these have devalued the sanctity of the elections.