Can elections be a solution to the political deadlock?

Narayan Manandhar

  • Read Time 5 min.

Given the complexity of ongoing political imbroglio, elections have been thought of as a way out. Next elections have to be held nearly after two years. What difference will it make if we have elections earlier? Moreover, elections are the foundation stones of democracy. There is nothing wrong in securing a fresh mandate from people. People’s consents have to be renewed again and again in a democratic system. PM Oli may have a hidden agenda of securing two-thirds or, for that matter, three-fourths majority, there is nothing wrong in giving him a benefit of doubt. 

At least, two largest political parties in parliament—CPN-UML (Oli faction) and Nepali Congress—and some other smaller parties are in a mood for early elections. There is a kind of national consensus on this issue. Probably, disagreements may rest on who is to supervise the elections? We do have a body called National Elections Commission but it is deeply entrenched in partisan interests. To a large extent, the current political problem can be ascribed to its past actions and inactions. Voting outcomes in Nepal are often influenced by the party in power. Therefore, everyone wishes to be in an electoral chair. Dr Baburam Bhattarai’s suggestion to have a national government, may be an answer but there is still the problem of belling the cat—deciding the leader to head the election government.

The next reason for holding early elections is that there is a simmering doubt that Nepal will ever have next elections. Earlier, when PM Oli dissolved parliament and called for elections, the opposition leaders doubted his real motive. Ram Chandra Paudel and Gagan Thapa from Nepali Congress were heard saying, “There is no point in participating in an election that is never going to happen”. For them the call for elections was nothing more than a pure hogwash. We must thank the Court, not just for restoring parliament but also for putting a stop on scheduled elections. Otherwise, holding elections amid looming humanitarian crisis would have turned into national stupidity, if not a mass suicide.

In a system where pork-barrel politics dominates the election outcomes, one can fairly question the proposition that elections will resolve our political problems.

Early elections again?

The political rumor market is rife with speculations that, after being reappointed, PM Oli is poised for another round of parliament dissolution and calling early elections. The important issue is not whether he will or will not hold elections. Or whether we should or should not have elections? The issue is: Will the elections (re)solve our problems? There are many instances in the world where, rather than easing, elections have complicated the situation. There are setbacks and backlashes on democracy due to wrong election timings and outcomes. Take the case of mid-term elections forced by then PM Girija Prasad Koirala in the mid-1990s. In fact, the current situation resembles that situation. The country was forced to go for elections due to intra-party fighting within governing Nepali Congress party in the mid-1990s. Twenty-five years down the road, we are in a similar situation. The only difference is that, this time, the intra-party fighting is inside Nepal Communist Party (NCP) now being shifted to CPN-UML. The mid-term elections resulted in a hung parliament situation and gave birth to Maoist Movement in the 1990s. What followed then is history. Take the other case of elections by King Gyanendra. Due to lack of public participation, and hence legitimacy, the elections turned out to be a farcical exercise.

Chaos of coalition

If any political party has assumed to secure majority in the elections then either it is betting on luck or badly fantasizing. Due to demographic composition and geographic spread of the voters and parliamentary seats together with our mixed electoral system, there is a greater chance of producing a hung parliament situation now than ever before. In the last elections, the communist parties were able to secure majority simply because they had a technical match fixing. We would have never landed into the current political morass if we had a law barring technical match fixing during election time.   

The hung parliament situation essentially demands a culture of coalition governments. Either we don’t have a coalition culture or have a perverse culture that is reduced to bhagbanda (sharing of the spoils) and a system of aalo-paalo (literal translation ‘eating turn-by-turn’). There is an interesting anecdote drawn from typical Nepali way of eating using your hand: At the time of eating, there is unison among five fingers, irrespective to their size, use and position. This habit of eating-time unity has bred and sustained a culture of corruption throughout the system.

Irrespective of their ideologies, the political parties in Nepal can be broadly classified into two—those which are for and against early elections. The first group consists of political parties that had an opportunity to dip their hands in the national coffers for so long; they do not see anything better than elections to have their investments and opportunity to turn ill-gotten wealth into white money. Elections play the role of money laundering business. The second group of political parties is wary because they don’t have money and power. In a system where pork-barrel politics dominate the election outcomes, one can fairly question the proposition that elections will (re)solve our political problems. This brings to fore the need to control electoral corruption.

Questionable quality

It is the quality of elections that is decisive in resolving political problems. We have a very poor quality of elections. There are extreme fluctuations in voting age population; total voters and voters’ turnout rates (refer to the chart)—making it impossible to predict election outcomes. Just take a raw data on voters’ count. In 2008 CA elections, we had 17.60 million registered voters; this got reduced to 12.15 million in 2013 CA elections. In 2017, the number increased to 15.44 million and now, it is estimated to be 16.34 million. There is no sensible explanation, other than outward migration due to foreign employment, on discrepancies in total number of voters. Interestingly, the chart depicts some degree of stability during multiparty days (1991-1999).

With the economy in tatters and looming humanitarian crisis posed by global pandemic, should we put our money in the procurement of vaccines and saving lives or should we spend our resources in holding elections?

One can fairly imagine the quality of our elections when ballot boxes are to be secured from donor countries. Nepal, probably, would be the only country in the world where people have to wait months and months before final election results are tallied and declared. There are hosts of financial, technical, manpower, security and even external constraints related to holding of elections.  Can we ever have our elections without managing open border points in the South? With the economy in tatters and looming humanitarian crisis posed by global pandemic situation should we put our money in the procurement of vaccines and saving lives or should we spend resources in holding elections?