Holding of Nepal’s Municipal Elections: Victory for All

Finally, the sovereign people of Nepal have exercised their constitutional right to choose their own elected representatives for the 58 municipalities of the country. This constitutional right was denied to them by successive governments since the elected Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba dissolved all the elected institutions in 2002.

This election is clearly a victory of the ballot over the bullet. Despite the 7-day bandh called by the Maoists, regardless of the boycott called by the seven agitating parties and in the face of EU’s ridiculous warning that these elections are a step backward for democracy, the people of Nepal came in fairly good numbers to cast their vote.

Democracy which was derailed by the elected Prime Minister in agreement with the major political parties has now been partly restored. These freshly elected Mayors, Deputy Mayors, and Ward Officials are the only existing elected representatives in the country today.

They have much more authority to talk of people’s sovereignty, total democracy and freedom than G P Koirala and Madhav Kumar Nepal who were last elected way back in 1999 or the Maoist leaders who were never elected except inside dens of their jungle hideouts.

It is, indeed, a victory of democracy, triumph of people power over muscle force and a conquest of good reason over negative publicity. King Gyanendra was precise when he said in his February 1st address last week, “democrats don’t lose when democracy wins.”

He has been proven right by the Nepali people and in the ultimate analysis that’s what actually counts. If municipal elections can be held in Nepal with Maoist attacks in Palpa and Panauti, running over a police post in Thankot and attack on two candidates and a lone taxi driver, then this nation should unmistakably gear up for general elections for the parliament without wasting any more time.

The Maoist myth has now been very badly shattered. Therefore, the Kantipur interview of the Maoist leaders in which they have called for talks with the royal government doesn’t come as a surprise.

Nepali security forces have been able to conduct the elections in a free and fair manner with far little violence compared to the fear psychosis and the illusion that was created by the Maoists and their sympathizers in the local media not to mention the panic attack among certain vested interest groups including diplomats stationed in Kathmandu.

When it came on the very day of the voting, the Maoists could do nothing. We wasted four years in contemplating whether or not the elections are feasible in lieu of the Maoist brutality and their guns running amok across the country.

But a sensible way forward would have been conducting these elections one by one and then filling up the positions of elected representatives as envisaged by the constitution.

Kudos must go to the present government for at least filling up one semblance of democracy. The parliament and the village level elections must now quickly follow. If some people want to disrupt the polls and bar the sovereign people in exercising their constitutional right, they must be placed under house arrest till the elections are over. This is done everywhere in the world especially in and around the Indian sub-continent.

The seven agitating parties, too, who claimed to have the backing of the people through their sponsored rallies could neither stop the people in participating in these elections nor disturb the poll proceedings in a significant manner.

Except media support and occasional backing by one section of the international community, their influence in Nepali politics has diminished to near zero. Just like the myth of the Maoists, the image of the US, UK, India and EU too have been devastated at the level of the Nepali people.

By calling for the restoration of democracy but not supporting elections, they showed that they have some hidden agenda to implement inside a messy Nepal. This writer had been writing time and again in this column that the parties should not boycott elections, rather participate in them, come out victorious and then do whatsoever they would like to do as regards to the constituent assembly, talks with the Maoists, etc.

But by leaving the space wide and open, they have committed a historic blunder. Now, there are Mayors and Deputy Mayors in all 58 municipalities freshly and legally elected by the sovereign people who will be executing their jobs as per the wishes of the people of their respective areas. They were sadistically enjoying as the media reported the withdrawal of candidature by some candidates but failed to recognize that constitutionally elected representatives can neither be sacked nor negated. Unfortunately, it is too late now.

Elections in conflict-ridden countries are always difficult to conduct. Thousands of American soldiers were killed in the run-up to elections in Iraq and Afghanistan. But by not holding elections and thus leaving a political vacuum, what we were essentially doing was providing room for the Maoists. This needs to be corrected by promptly holding the elections to the parliament and the village level.

Of course there will be Maoist violence and killings but they need to be conducted anyhow just like in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Indian state of Assam because elections are the first prerequisite to democracy and without democracy insurgents always tend be at the advantage.

As far as the question of maximum people participation is concerned, the 2004 Presidential elections in the United States witnessed a mere 42.45 percent participation. George Bush received a majority of the popular vote: 50.73 percent to Kerry’s 48.27 percent. 50 percent of 42 percent of Americans means that Bush was elected to office by only 21 percent of American citizens. Ironically, this was a record turnout – the highest since 1968.

During the 1999 elections in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, despite the heavy presence of Indian Army troops the turnout was very low. It was just 13.8 percent in Anantanag and even less in the Baramulla. The Sangrama Assembly segment of Baramulla recorded the lowest of 2.5 while just 0.9 percent in the Anantanag constituency.

Not a single vote was polled in about 180 polling stations in Kashmir as a whole. The call for a general strike (Bandh) by the All Party Hurriyat Conference evoked total response both on September 18 and October 4 paralyzing normal life in the Kashmir valley.

All political parties, independent candidates, non-governmental groups, human rights activists, media (both domestic and foreign) and most importantly, the international community, seriously doubted the credibility of the elections and the results that followed it.

Even in 2002, the assembly elections in the valley had to be conducted in four phases but only with an average turnout of about 44 percent. This is the predicament of the largest democracy on earth with the third largest standing army and a declared nuclear weapon status.

At least landlocked Nepal with far fewer security personnel and budget was successful in holding the municipal elections on a single day without much violence. Certainly, with the participation of the seven agitating parties, the voter turnout would have been far greater but it is their betrayal to this nation and to the sovereign people of Nepal that is to be solely blamed.

They must realize that even without their participation, people have indeed come out to vote and despite the Maoist terror warnings, all the 58 Mayoral posts are now filled. Only famous dictatorships like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe witness 99 percent voter turnout. Had Nepal not been a democracy and if the Election Commission was a pawn of regression, the voter turnout could have been easily maneuvered to camouflage the international community.

But have the political parties lost their political gamble? Should they be totally demoralized? Definitely not. Democracy is such a wonderful system of governance that there is a legitimate place for everybody – all the time.

They must now repent for their past mistakes, reconcile with the King and contest in the parliamentary and village level elections. Talks with the Maoists can come up as soon as the new parliament is formed thus providing legal and constitutional legitimacy to the ‘give and take’ that may take place with the insurgents.

Failing to grasp this new political reality will only be a waste of time. Resorting to brick-batting on the streets and calling for continual Nepal – bandhs will only alienate themselves with the common man.

Ms. Preeti Koirala is an insurance executive of Nepali origin, based in the USA.