Oped

The election effect

  • One hopes the dysfunction that became so apparent with the all-party mechanisms after 2007 will stop after these elections
- Deepak Thapa
Very important will be the emancipatory effect of being elected—not nominated—to a position of authority on that group of women who are perhaps the most downtrodden of all—Madhesi Dalit women

May 18, 2017-

Come July and it will be a full decade and a half since we have had elected representatives at the local level. The then-prime minister (and, soon-to-be-one-again) Sher Bahadur Deuba, riding high at having thumbed his nose at the party establishment by walking out with part of the Nepali Congress, allowed the terms of the local bodies to lapse in July 2002.

Considering that the situation was not altogether conducive for holding polls, as Deuba himself so infamously concluded less than three months later about parliamentary elections, and also considering that part of the Maoist game plan was to rid the countryside of any semblance of government presence, the feeble hope that the government would use its statutory discretion to grant a year-long extension to these bodies came to naught. With the UML holding a majority of local government seats across the country, Deuba believed he was doing his side a favour by creating a political vacuum at the grassroots, even if it meant playing into the hands of the Maoists. Not that it would have really mattered, given the long gap between then and now, and the momentous changes the country was to experience in the interim.

No clear winner yet

We are yet a long way off from pronouncing on the performance of the parties with any degree of finality. The second phase will see 41 districts going to the polls to elect 461 local governments compared to only 283 in 34 districts in the first. A look at the results so far shows that the Maoists have done surprisingly and creditably well, whereas the Rastriya Prajatantra Party has once again proved its vulnerability in winner-takes-all elections. But, it is pretty much clear that the two major parties, the Nepali Congress and the UML, will continue to rule the roost.

The stiff competition between the Nepali Congress and the UML appears to be headed towards a middle point compared to the 1992 and 1997 elections when the NC and the UML had respectively swept the elections, winning more than 50 percent of the seats in VDCs, municipalities as well as DDCs. The difference so far has been the emergence of the Maoists as a third contender, a far cry from their disruption of the 1997 election, leading to zero nominations being filed in 41 VDCs in their strongholds in the mid-west and postponement of elections in 62 others.

The biggest unknown is how well Madhesi parties will do, since the first phase did not touch any of the Madhesi-majority Tarai districts. The one party that spoke out for Madhesis in the pre-2006 period, the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, won 3, 10 and 8 percent of the seats in VDCs, municipalities and DDCs in 1992, and 12, 8 and 10 percent in 1997. Madhesi identity will certainly matter this time around, but the question is if we will see a repeat of the 2008 CA election that gave Madhes-based parties a huge mandate or if the divisions within the movement will once again lead to a fracturing of the vote to their detriment.

The voting pattern this time around will also determine whether the repositioning and realignments among the parties since the 2013 CA election have borne fruit. Taking the cue from this election, we are likely to see even more interesting and equally unfathomable alliances in preparation for the grand prize of parliamentary elections due in less than a year.

Socio-political engineering

After years of being billed as a panacea to the mess of our political system, there is a lot set in store by these elections. The Local Self-Governance Act of 1999 had been termed a very comprehensive document in terms of granting authority down the line. But the Maoist insurgency ensured that we could not experience its full implementation. The 2015 constitution has expanded the scope of local bodies even as the administrative units have become much larger and there are now many more municipalities. One can only hope that the dysfunction that became so apparent with the all-party mechanisms after 2007 will not be repeated, at least not everywhere.

One of the main achievements of this election, however, will be years in the making. The mandatory election of one woman and one Dalit woman from all village and municipal wards across the country is going to gradually change the composition of political leadership. There will be detractors who will view these, in many instances, upcoming women leaders as no more than mouthpieces for their parties, or proxies for their male relatives. But, as the Indian experience with Panchayat Raj has shown, the women will eventually assert their authority and come into their own within a few years.

The election of women is also significant on the social front since it represents yet another blow against patriarchy. More important perhaps will be the emancipatory effect of being elected—not nominated—to a position of authority on that group of women who are perhaps the most downtrodden of all—Madhesi Dalit women. They will be role models to thousands of girls and women from similar backgrounds, which is likely to have consequences much more far-reaching than any awareness campaign will ever have.

Country of minorities

A related but little noticed aspect of the election was the government’s finally deciding who constitutes the minorities in Nepal. The notification was published in late April with the express purpose of facilitating the local election as per the Local Level Election Act 2017, which provides for compulsory representation of minorities in village and municipal assemblies. Accordingly, of Nepal’s 125 caste and ethnic groups, those with less than 0.5 percent of the population as per Census 2011 have been designated as minorities. That definition has given us 98 such groups in total, ranging from the Kalwar, who make up 0.48 percent of the population, to the Kusunda at 273, a proportion too small to even register in numbers with two digits following the decimal. With that out of way, we will now have to find a way of rephrasing the truism that we are a country of minorities, for we are now a country of numerical minorities as well as officially designated minorities.

The one quibble I had about the election was the size of the ballot paper (in Kathmandu at least) and the difficulty of handling it. Since anyone eligible can stand for elections, there is little the Election Commission can do about the number of candidates. But it could at least recognise that the electorate could do with some assistance such as printing the name of the candidate next to the symbol that stands for them. When Nepal’s first general election was held in 1959, the literacy rate was less than 10 percent and symbols were the only way in which voters could distinguish among the candidates. Sixty years later, literacy is around 70 percent and yet we continue to be infantilised and asked to choose from a maze of sketches that together act to create optical illusion. One certainly hopes things will improve next year.

Published: 18-05-2017 08:51

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