INTERVIEW

[INTERVIEW Krishna Hachhethu] UML wants early polls as it has done well; NC wants to defer them for same reason

Jul 10, 2017-The main opposition CPN-UML has fared remarkably well in the second phase of the local elections, winning about 45 percent of the local units.  Now all eyes are set on the third phase of local polls in Province 2, which is scheduled for September 18. Binod Ghimire and Supriya Gurung spoke to political analyst Krishna Hachhethu about the driving factors behind the poll results and the prospects of provincial and general elections taking place before the constitutional deadline of January 21, 2018.  

What do you think the election results indicate?

Generally, election results are determined by how the state and key actors (such as the main political parties and candidates) communicate with voters. This time, the state has projected the local governments as powerful structures that drive development. The state communicated that development was no longer an agenda pushed by the central government and that citizens would be provided with local development agencies after the local level elections. This narrative has influenced the results of the latest local level elections, with voters favouring those who are not part of the government.  

In contrast, during the 1992 and 1997 elections, the local government/unit was perceived as an agent that implements the central government’s policy and programmes. This translated into results that were skewed towards the party in power. In 1992, the Nepali Congress had control of over 60 percent of the seats and in 1997, the CPN-UML won 60 percent of the seats as well. 

So the UML was able to communicate the message of local governance to the voters better than the other parties?

The state’s message that the local government has its own authority and does not need to turn to the centre for development impacted the results; voters favoured those not in government—in this case, the UML. Additionally, the slogan of ‘nationalism’ also pushed the UML ahead. But nationalism in word and nationalism in substance are different. Sloganeering nationalism appeals to the hill voters, and the UML employed it by appealing to the way the Nepali people had suffered during the blockade. During the blockade, the UML was quick to project and promote a brand of nationalism that’s based on anti-Indian and anti-Madhes sentiments. 

 

How then do you explain the UML’s good performance in the supposed Madhes centres such as Kailali, Dang and Rupandehi?

These areas may be situated in the Madhes region, but many hill migrants have settled there. From Jhapa to Kanchanpur, the urban areas and towns straddling the East-West Highway are dominated by settlements of hill migrants, who were drawn to the UML’s nationalistic sloganeering. The new local bodies have been designed in such a way that there are two or three Madhesi settlements on the periphery of the highway. So, the population of urban dwellers is numerically higher than that of the Madhesis on the periphery. The closer you get to the highway and adjoining areas, the better the UML has performed. By contrast, in the interior parts of the Tarai, the UML could not gain a foothold. 

So the UML’s success can also be attributed to the new structure of the local level bodies? 

The Local Level Restructuring Commission was formed when KP Oli was prime minister. Additionally, the commission has nine members, six of whom are Khas-Aryas with common views about the restructuring of local bodies. The views of the other three were thus overshadowed. The design of the new structure is partly responsible, because if you look back at when we had about 3,157 VDCs, those with Janajati backgrounds held 22-23 percent of the positions of chairperson, and those with Madhesi backgrounds held about 19-20 percent of the positions. But this time, I expect their representation will be reduced to 12-13 percent. The smaller the local units, the higher the prospect of a homogenous population. In a homogenous unit, the prospect of victory for a marginalised group is higher. This time, the local electoral constituencies covered a bigger geographical area with mixed settlements. And a political space with mixed settlements is favourable for dominant groups. 

The local governments have been structured in such a way that waters down the idea of inclusion. This shows how the government has institutionalised the idea of exclusion. Minority groups have been merged with majority groups, and so their electoral prospects have declined. This is all due to bureaucratic design. 

While political parties are compelled to address the issue of inclusion, bureaucrats maintain a more conservative stance, as is common all over the world. When the restructuring commission was formed, a facilitating committee was at the top, and a technical committee of government officials were situated at the lower district level. These were the bureaucratic designers.

But obviously the political parties had a part in the design?

The political parties only became involved when the government initially announced 619 local level bodies. This is when they started to show their concern at the district level. For example, in Chitwan, the technical committee attempted to involve political parties in the design of local bodies; however, the NC, the CPN (Maoist Centre) and the UML told the commission to form the bodies, and they would become involved only to revise some issues. So they were involved only in the later stages of design. And even then, they were largely driven by how their electoral prospects would increase if constituencies were formed in certain ways. This was gerrymandering and was rejected. 

 

How would you respond to the argument that the UML did a better job at fielding candidates who appealed to the voters’ identity than other parties?

We haven’t seen the UML’s choices for the remaining provincial and federal elections, so we can’t make this claim conclusively. All parties have adopted the idea of identity to appeal to the voters, although the degree of such adoption varies. As of now, the UML has adopted this method to the highest degree. One thing to note, however, is that the lower the level of government, the more accommodative it is. For example, looking at the current hierarchy of parties, the chances of members of marginalised groups being included in the central committee are limited, but the chances are higher at the village level. 

How do you view the RJP-N’s current position?

Whether the constitution is amended or not, the RJP-N has lost its battle either way. The central contentious issue of their demands was the boundary of the provinces. The local elections have endorsed the legitimacy of the present boundary as delineated in Provinces 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. The day the constitution was promulgated, the political parties recognised that provincial boundaries needed revision, which was why they included a provision for a transitional local government. Every government after the promulgation of the government has put boundary revision at the centre of its agenda and has pledged to come to an agreement, but no conclusive agreement on boundary re-delineation has been reached. 

Initially, the idea was to conduct local elections all at once, but then it was split into two phases and the constitution was to be amended before the second phase. The government has been playing games stalling the process of amendment. The main aim is to weaken the RJP-N’s ability to rebel and tire it out. Now, the RJP-N is in such a position that it cannot obstruct elections in Province 2. The state is too strong. 

So the RJP-N will lose either way. They have two options: surrender, or go for elections and lose. The UML may offer some concessions to the RJP-N because it will have to soften its anti-Madhesi tone if it wants to do well in the provincial elections. The UML might offer to form a commission to try to placate the RJP-N, and as we know well, a commission’s report is easily shoved under the carpet. 

 

How likely is it that Province 2 elections will take place on time?

PM Deuba is looking for an excuse to extend the date of general elections, which is precisely what will happen if elections in Province 2 are postponed. So it is not the RJP-N that will demand that Province 2 elections be put off. Instead, it will be the NC. The UML wants elections to happen as early as possible, because it does not want the fire from the previous elections to cool down. The NC, however, wants to prolong the wait precisely for the opposite reason. The RJP-N doesn’t have a choice. The ball is in the court of the Prime Minister and the NC. 

 

How about the constitutional deadline of January 21, 2018 to hold all remaining polls?

The outcome of the local elections has changed the political equation. If the deadline is to be met and preparations are made to that end, the UML will be in a better position. However, the party in power—the NC—has a technical advantage to extend its tenure by calling for a constitution amendment to push back the deadline. Of course, the UML could obstruct this amendment. However, doing so when the Delimitation Commission has still not been formed would be counterproductive on numerous grounds. So, whether the elections will take place before January 21 is still up in the air.

Published: 10-07-2017 08:14

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