Nepal Today

Monday, March 25, 2013

INTERVIEW JUNE ELECTION A SWEET DREAM Former Chief Election Commissioner Bhojraj Pokharel oversaw the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections, for which he was praised nationally and internationally. After 2008, he resigned from the Commission to study at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He was also appointed by the UN Secretary General as a member of the panel that monitored the referendum over self-determination in South Sudan. Four years later, as the country prepares to hold another CA election, the Kathmandu Post’s Gyanu Adhikari met with Pokharel to discuss the possible hurdles to elections and the steps the current government can take to overcome them. Excerpts: You conducted the last CA election. Do you see the value in holding another CA election? Ours is a strange country. We’re proving wrong world experiences. Normally, CA elections happen only once. It is important to ask what the new elections are for. If it is for a constitution, you have to examine yesterday’s players, tendencies and processes. In that context, I don’t see many reasons to be hopeful that another CA will write a constitution. What kind of commitment do you think the parties should show? It’s likely that the position of the parties will not change drastically in the new CA but the tendencies are the same. They obstructed the CA’s processes in the past. The CA’s rights were hijacked by so-called leaders both inside the CA and outside. They didn’t let the CA function and they were unable to use the rights they hijacked to write a constitution. For that not to repeat, they must say exactly how they will act when there is a new CA. How did the people who lost in the last CA election get so much power over how it functioned? A body of elected representatives with the people’s mandate became dependent on the parties and unelected leaders and bodies. The CA couldn’t be assertive enough. How different do you think the new CA election is going to be from the previous one? There are three key actors: parties, government and the EC. But the government’s role is paramount. Generally, the parties in government always try to misuse state resources and authorities for their favoured candidates. Implementation of the election code of conduct under such a government is always difficult and invites electoral violence and questions over the fairness of the election. This component is going to be minimised with a neutral government in place. Do you see CA elections happening by June as the parties claim? I said in January that elections by June is a sweet dream. We’re in March today, and I have yet to see the ground realities change. The situation today is difficult and more complicated. But nothing is impossible. The government needs to make extraordinary efforts, which, unfortunately, we haven’t seen yet. Given the many difficulties, why did the parties decide on June in the first place? Some people wanted to get rid of Baburam Bhattarai from the prime minister’s chair. Others wanted a new government. Still others wanted positions in the body that’ll conduct elections, they too pushed for June. International actors who became active in forming the election government also had to stick on June to justify their position. So different interests converged without really understanding the feasibility of holding elections by then. But that phase is over. The challenge for this government is to hold elections by June. If they can’t do it, the government’s purpose will be questioned. Can you tell us more about the role of the international community in this process? If the current experiment with a neutral government fails and there are no elections by June, then it will also be seen as the failure of the international community, since they were active in the process that led to this government being formed. What hurdles do you see for elections to be held by June? The biggest hurdle is that of a political atmosphere. We are conducting a CA election, which means the constitution made through this election should be acceptable to all. For that, all major political forces should be engaged with the process. Even if you can’t get all forces on board, you can still hold elections, but it won’t give a way out of the current impasse. So bringing all political forces on board is a major challenge. Have you seen any efforts to get forces opposed to new CA elections on board? That effort should have been visible on day one of the new government. But I haven’t seen it yet. Also, I’ve heard some people say it’s really not important if everybody joins the election process. This is not true. We postponed elections three times last time around just to get everybody on board the political process. The four parties might be content that they’ve signed a document that says elections by June, but not even their cadres believe it. The election atmosphere is just not there. What about the four parties? What could they do? Look at the rest of the parties opposed to the four parties. They are also competitors in elections. What moral authority do the four parties have to go and negotiate with their competitors? To get these quarreling sides together, we need a negotiator. That’s the role of this government. But paradoxically, this government is taking minimum initiation on it and is still depending on the four parties to create an enabling political environment conducive to elections. This is a fundamental deviation from their anticipated role. Do you think the government could be more assertive? The power of the government is assured by the constitution. How can the four parties tell the government what to do or not do! The government shouldn’t give people room for doubt that it is sincere about holding elections by June; it shouldn’t give grounds to create suspicions that it wants to dilly-dally until November. People have high hopes from this government and it should play an assertive role to meet its objective. The window of opportunity is very limited with this government and it should not waste a single minute. There are parties opposed to elections, like the CPN-Maoist. What kind of give and take do you think they want? As I said, there’s not a lot of confidence that elections will be held. So these parties are thinking—why compromise on an election that won’t be held? Also, some parties are still expanding their organisation. If the process is delayed, they have more time to expand their organisational reach. To bring all on board, egos need to be satisfied. For this, continuous dialogue and some compromises are needed to address grievances. A win -win situation is necessary to be created though these negotiations. How do you rate the government’s performance so far? The time has not come to rate the performance of this government, which is still in its formation stage. But it is not a normal government which could enjoy a 100-day honeymoon period. The government lost some legitimacy right at the start by saying which minister was appointed based on recommendation from the parties. Why call it a neutral government then? Do you consider this a neutral government at all? Generally, yes but in the eyes of those who don’t agree with the four parties, this is not a neutral government. What technical challenges do you see for elections to be held in June? The government is probably waiting for the formation of the election commission to enter this area, but that should not have been the case. The voter roll is an example. There are about five million genuine voters missing from the voter roll created so far by the EC. We still don’t know what the cut-off date is after which a person above 18 will be eligible to vote. The 11-point agreement the parties made contains very complicated language about how to update the voter roll. They have to blend three things: the voter roll of 2008, the biometric roll created so far by the EC and the voters to be added after citizenship certificates are distributed. They haven’t made the necessary law and policy to do this. It’s been four years since I left the EC but if the capacity is the same, the task is next to impossible to prepare a voter list on time which could ensure June elections. What political complexities do you see? As far as political management goes, another issue that could flare up is that of constituencies. The four parties decided to maintain old ones, but in places where the population has changed, there’s going to be disagreement. They have a valid demand for a share based on population. Also, the number of CA members has been reduced to 491 from the previous 601. The direct effect of this will be on marginalised communities that thought they had gained better representation. With the reduced numbers, they will feel that this policy will further marginalise them. I don’t know how much consultation was done with the concerned groups before making these decisions. So, if these constituencies are not well consulted and taken into confidence, they may join the forces opposed to the current process. These are big challenges and the government’s worth will be tested by these challenges. If the agitating parties started to pressurise through closures etc, to meet demands, that will negatively affect preparations for elections. The country should not waste even a single day in this abnormal period. What steps does the government need to take if we’re to see elections in June? There are forces that have refused to recognise the current government. The government should talk and bring them into confidence. Also, the four parties, instead of being reconciliatory, are using provocative language to further alienate the opposing voices. That’s scary, and will only lead to further stalemate. The political process from now on should be driven by the government, not the four parties. The four parties should be treated the same as the other parties. I think the meeting point between the government and the opposing parties could be for Khil Raj Regmi to resign as Chief Justice. In addition, I also don’t see the use for the four-party mechanism. The opposing forces could be placated by dissolving the mechanism, or by expanding it significantly but limiting its role to only creating an enabling environment. They have to realise that elections is the only priority for the country, and elections can’t be held without all political forces coming together and compromising. These two things will help create the political atmosphere necessary for elections. We have to accept the reality that elections are to address the problems and they should not be part of creating additional problems. nnnn


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