Election silver lining – Oped

May 21, 2017-

The much awaited polls for the local bodies are over in three provinces that comprise 287 village and municipal communities out of over 700. The elections results, though painfully slow, are coming in. Elections in the remaining four provinces are slated to be held less than a month from now. These polls are of paramount significance as there haven’t been any local level elections in the last 20 years. Throughout the last 15 years—after the term of the last locally elected representatives expired—these bodies were being managed on an ad hoc basis. A junior level civil servant used to run the then ‘Village Development Committees’ either under the lax oversight of, or in collusion with, the members of a so-called all-party mechanism. Absence of elected representatives, and therefore local accountability, gave both of them free hands to engage in corruption, which became rampant over the years.

For 15 years, the election was forestalled by a series of conditions which were beyond the control of any ruler. These include the decade-long Maoist insurgency, the abolition of the monarchy, the Madhes agitation, state restructuring, the making of a new constitution and the Madhesi people’s disenchantment with it. They are over now, and so is the political transition. With the constitution amendment bill—aimed at addressing the grievances of the Madhesi people—now in process, it was only natural to conduct the overdue local elections. The highly powerful, albeit not necessarily capable, local level bodies that are the foundation stones of our democracy and the basic units of our federal structure cannot come to life without elections.

Taboo, traditions, trends

The elections this time aren’t a routine affair; they are trend setting events. In the course of polls, we broke certain political taboos; and we set some new trends which may make our democracy mature and robust. For instance, parties, which in the past refused to collaborate citing differences in their respective ideology, ideals or identity, formed electoral alliances. Until recently, despite their commitment to a pluralist democracy, most of the parties used to treat the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) as a pariah for its monarchist legacy and links; they wouldn’t grant it the recognition it deserved on account of its popular or electoral strength. 

There is no denying that both cadres and voters of allying parties have responded coolly to the alliance, if election results are anything to go by. The underlying reason of such a response needs to be investigated and addressed. All the same, a new era of political coexistence and collaboration has dawned. The polls, and the preceding alliances, have broken all barriers of self-righteousness, egos and ideologies.

This time, almost all parties have talked about the real aspirations of real people. Even the communists didn’t use abstract and useless but overused ‘communist jargon’, which is their hallmark. Parties refrained from advocating or talking about abstract ‘isms’, divisive identity politics, and agitations of one kind or the other, the way they did in the past. They have rightly realised that people are in no mood now to waste their precious time and resources in the pursuit of such stupid or dangerous goals. Hence, they shifted their focus to development, delivery, people’s livelihood and social security. Yes, some of the promises, especially the mega infrastructure projects that have been proposed, are too ambitious to be completed by local level bodies in their five-year tenure. However, that the issues of fast development, and not political agitations, have taken political centre stage is in itself a welcome development in this country.

A welcome trend

The basis of alliance-making was not haphazard, as some have criticised. The two big ruling parties, the Nepali Congress and the Maoist-Centre, formed an alliance not only because they were coalition partners in central government, but because they believe that legitimate grievances of Madhes-centric parties should be addressed through a constitution amendment. On the other hand, partners of another alliance—the UML-led grouping and RPP—largely believe that the constitution should be implemented without such an amendment. Despite this convergence of approach, the alliance wasn’t a fixed and absolute one. Several cross-alliances, as deemed appropriate at the local level, have been made between rival camps. The alliances weren’t formed on a nationwide basis either. They were limited to selected constituencies and may therefore change anytime in the future.

Thus, criticisms such as opportunistic, ‘syndicatist’, unprincipled etc are unwarranted. The nation has already suffered a great deal from inter-party conflicts and political polarisation, which have often resulted in violence, political instability and disorder. With the protracted and painful political transition nearly over, it is now time for nation-building, which demands political stability and reconciliation among political forces. No wonder, agitators, activists devoted to their narrow agenda, traditional political analysts and diehard party supporters oppose the culture of alliance. But the nation should ignore them, and move forward.

Keep it up

The present electoral system, which is a mix of direct election and proportional representation systems and which sets no minimum threshold of popular votes for individuals to be elected in federal and state level legislatures, is certain to produce hung parliaments for a long time to come. Under those conditions, electoral alliances or coalitions at those levels are inevitable. Therefore, there is no point in opposing them at village and municipal levels. In fact, local level elections should have been contested on a non-partisan basis, something which civil society groups have been advocating for a long time. 

But this is not possible in the near future as major parties have an organisational base and social networks down to the district and village levels. And they won’t agree to disown or dismantle their ‘empire’. In local level polls, people vote not only along party lines, but also on the basis of popularity of, and personal links with, the candidates. This also justifies the principle behind forming alliances. Yes, alliances should be merit based, and not opportunistic. If this criterion alone is maintained, there is no harm in forming alliances between parties, whether to contest elections or to run governments at any level.

Published: 21-05-2017 08:49