The best of worst alternatives
‘We could ram polls through in November, but will the Constituent Assembly (CA) thus elected be able to write a new Constitution?’
[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ecently, I was invited to speak at an interaction in my capacity as the Chief Election Commissioner for the 2008 polls. I had said: “We have to climb a mountain, but looking at the behaviour and preparations of the major political parties and the government, it looks like they aren’t even prepared to climb a hill. Therefore, we have to doubt their true intentions and the possibility of elections in November.”The media pulls things out of context for a sensational headline and this is how my remarks came out in the papers: ‘Former Chief Election Commissioner Rules Out November Elections’. This wasn’t surprising, but what took me aback was that most political leaders believed the distorted headline rather than my clarification.
One thing we can say with certainty is that elections are the only way out. The people want elections, the international community is united in favour of elections, the prestige of the frontline political leadership is tied up with holding polls in November, and there is a government whose sole mandate is to hold elections. Still, elections are uncertain. Why?
None of the parties is against eventual polls, they just want to have it under conditions and at a time favourable to themselves. The government has failed to show from the very beginning through its activities that it is focused on its mandate of holding elections. The four main parties are not speaking with a united voice, seem to be afraid of what the results will be, and are prone to making contradictory statements. The smaller parties are even more insecure about their status.
With the same style, process, leadership and behaviour witnessed in the first CA, a majority of Nepalis are doubtful that the new CA will be any different. Unless this issue is addressed, it is difficult to create an election wave out of thin air. But it is clear that if elections aren’t held soon the current state of hopelessness will increase the political anarchy in the country. We also need elections to end the constitutional limbo, restore the power and independence of the judiciary, and to free it from the shadow of the executive. But while the Election Commission has shown it can hold polls in November despite all obstacles, there isn’t the same sense of urgency and seriousness among the political forces.
Every political party has the right not to contest an election, but the opposing parties say they are being intentionally sidelined. If true, this can lead to a hostile and confrontational election environment. This is not just a parliamentary election, and preparations for new elections are being built on the ruins of the old Constituent Assembly.
Even though all political forces were represented in the previous House, they failed to write a constitution even in the extended period. So how can we be convinced that the new CA can write a constitution acceptable to all if some political forces remain out of the process?
The lesson from the 2008 election is that political preparedness and necessary political will are more important than sorting out the technical issues and logistics for polls. Most of the political players are the same as they were five years ago, except for Girija Prasad Koirala. The 2008 polls happened only after all the political forces were willing to agree on the election, and we haven’t yet reached that stage this time round. The same contentious issues of delineation of constituencies, extending voter registration time, and adding seats have bedeviled poll preparations this time too.
We could ram an election through in November, but the questions remains: can a CA not represented by all major political forces ensure peace and a new constitution? Last week, there were positive signs that all forces would be brought into the election process, but that hope did not last long.
There are now two alternatives: have elections on 19 November no matter what, or put off the date to bring everyone into the fray.
There are pros and cons to both options. We have to take the less risky path, one that will provide a more stable solution to the country’s long-term interests. Elections are meant to address conflict and should not be the trigger for further conflict.
We have seen countries which have been destroyed by post-election violence. We have to hold polls when the Assembly that is elected has the best chance of finalising a new constitution.
Bhojraj Pokharel was the Chief
Election Commissioner during the 2008 elections in Nepal