Can Khil Raj Regmi’s bureaucrat-driven government succeed in holding an independent election on November 19, 2013 embracing all political voices in Nepal and guaranteeing the Nepali voters’ security at the ballot box ? Foreign and Nepali eyes watch closely with their fingers crossed, amidst building optimism and new international focus on Nepal’s democratic future.
Khil Raj Regmi’s swearing in as the head of the Nepal government in March 2013 was almost a fait d’ accompli for his predecessor, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. The former prime minister tried valiantly to hold a CA Poll in November 2012 but was defeated by opposition voices within his own CPN-M party, forcing him to leave Baluwatar for his more modest and peaceful abode in Sanepa. As his critics say, Bhattarai, with his pilot dream projects and airy plans sans economic resources, left everyone guessing by using diversionary tactics and free media air play vis-a-vis the unfurling democratic confusion that at best defines Nepal’s current political crossroads, where no one has total reign of executive power.
Khil Raj Regmi was sworn in as leader of the Nepal government almost a year after Bhattarai succeeded in dissolving the Parliament, a big time lapse when President Dr. Ram Baran Yadav had other democratic options to consider. Regmi faced stiff opposition even from his closest family, friends and legal advisors on the controversy he might confront in being a former head of the Supreme Court wielding executive powers.
But Regmi decided to take the seat, and seems firm on upholding national democratic interests by conducting a successful CA election in November 19, 2013. The cabinet ministers he has chosen share few qualities- they are educated bureaucrats, some who had encountered wrath from previous prime ministers, ministers and party bigwigs for defending Nepal’s bureaucracy and keeping reins on corruption.
The cabinet agrees on the need of total voter security in the upcoming CA polls. Diplomats based in Kathmandu seem to be in agreement. Anyone with an interest in Nepal’s politics is watching the developments closely and many actors are working to ensure a free, fair and secure election. But with strong opposition from an alliance of 33 parties, led by CPN-Maoists, there is threat of violence during this election.
But the 33-party alliance is not the only faction in Nepal that disagrees with elections in November. Economists and development experts lament that national GDP growth is lackluster, 4.6% in the 2012-2013 period, and that we cannot afford another CA Poll. Industrial growth is stagnant, trans Himalayan trade expansion prospects remain unexplored and investment is low in potential hydropower projects. All this, coupled with inflation, has taken a toll in the economy.
The limited economic opportunities has left Nepal’s wayward youth, especially in the rural regions, ambitionless, all hoping to pursue low-rung overseas jobs in Southeast Asian and Middle East labor receiving countries. Nepal’s youth, which is also the spring board of all daily bundhs, strikes and other activities from various influential political parties, see no respite in holding another election where their voices will not be represented honestly. Many think the constitutional process itself seems unsound and cuts them off once they cast their ballots.
The people also see constitutional dishonesty taking place as well: Nepal’s constitutional process states that the President is elected by the Parliament, which also elects the Prime Minister. However, Nepal’s constitution also cleverly averts mentioning who would elect a caretaker head of government, or a de facto prime minister, like Khil Raj Regmi. Nepal’s youth if not responded to could also be the bane of current CA poll security woes which the interim Nepal government must think in earnest and try to co-opt by involving them in the electoral and security mobilisation process.
What about Nepal’s civil rights leaders and activists safeguarding the people’s constitutional democratic freedoms? According to them, the last election held on April 10, 2010 created a mammoth Parliament of 601 members which was highly dysfunctional, divided on key issues of concluding the peace process, ignorant of Nepal’s economic future, and generally functioning as couch potato types driven by the urgency of rhetoric than a focus on national progress. Many of them did not understand war crime issues or how human rights functioned in the Western democratic sense in the national reconciliation oriented peace process.
Also, the previous Constituent Assembly had 240 members elected by plurality vote in single-member constituencies to serve five year terms. Besides, 335 members were elected through a closed-list proportional representation system while 26 members were Cabinet appointees both serving 5-year terms. In the proportional representation system one candidate represented one district and could run in only one tier. The fault with this system was that it was strictly political party oriented with the majority of Nepal’s influential apolitical businessmen, educated technocrats and ex-bureaucrats, and women leaders in particular, were excluded from running for parliament. Even Nepal’s civil society representatives were ignored by the CA representation process and it still remains so.
As a former Chief Justice, Khil Raj Regmi understands the sensitivity of human rights adherence and its implications on personal freedom in casting one single ballot, and thus, at least, promises to uphold an election that will change Nepal’s democratic future for the better. However, he will have to focus harder on the developing security challenges. Regmi has also promised an all-inclusive election, which is possible only if the Nepal Army is mobilised in time to safeguard the election booth. This has become a 11th hour necessity for free and fair CA Polls in November 2013.
Nearly 12.47 million eligible voters will be casting their vote in the proposed November elections. These consist of all those 18 years and up of 30 million Nepalis and nearly eight million in the global diaspora, of whom five million, according to independent sources, could be eligible to vote. In Nepal, the number includes all Nepalis registered until July 15, the cut off date. This time the Election Commission has introduced a more scientific voter ID card generated on computational data base, with photo and finger print validation to avoid election fraud and duplicate ballot casting, an all time favorite hobby of Nepal’s major political parties in past elections since the democratic inception of Nepal in 1990.
However, the more crucial question for the Regmi government right now is the urgent preparedness and mobilization of Nepal Army given the sensitivity of open borders with India to the south, a global economic rising superpower from which Nepal imports 85% of its daily commodities, and China in the North, another economic superpower that is predicted to dominate global politics in the Asia-Pacific theater in the next fifty years along with the United States. Both India and China along with the United States form an interesting triangular strategic development partnership for Nepal, sometimes with opposing interests, supplanted by other aggressive field players from the European Union and the G-8 club. In recent months, top diplomats and security experts from China and India, besides the aforementioned group of countries, have already conveyed their security opinion to the Nepal Government through various channels and also extended fraternal assistance to see the “smooth conduct” of the 2013 CA Polls.
In the 2008 CA elections, 50 individuals were killed, 1,286 were injured and 116 were kidnapped. In a total of 485 political and election-related incidents occurred, according to global media. These deaths far surpassed the so-called Jan Andolan-3 when ex-King Gyanendra relinquished monarchial powers acceding to the Nepali people’s democratic wishes for an alternative form of government.
This is why the Regmi government is intent on full mobilisation of the Nepal Army during the 2013 November CA Poll. President Ram Baran Yadav has just given his official nod to amend Article 145 (5) of the Interim Constitution that blocked army mobilisation without parliamentary approval, which meant a constitutional amendment was necessary. This is taking into consideration that Nepal Army has valiantly served the Nepali people in their democratic quest in all past elections playing an apolitical role, helping transport electoral officers, ballots and sometimes emergency field and medical personnel, in addition to what is traditionally deployed from the Nepal Police and the Armed Police Force. No Integrated Security Plan from the Nepal Government can function unless fully equipped and highly alert 61,000 strong NA personnel is deployed with an additional 56,000 from Nepal Police and 45,000 temporary police personnel, plus another 20,000 from the Armed Police Force.
Foreign observers of Nepal also see the crucial need to equip the Nepal Army with logistic and field support to enhance their role as a back-up force, given the continued threat of a 33 party alliance oppositional boycott, roaming terrorist outfits in the Nepal Terai, and unsubstantiated rumors of YCL and similar youth brigade mobilisation to create hurdles variously from the UCPN-Maoists, Nepali Congress (aka Tarun Dal) and the UML-Marxist-Leninist should victory not be theirs in the end.
Among other resource outlays, the Army faces serious air logistic constraints such as helicopters or STOL aircraft. Many of the weather strips might also need repair and temporary helipads re-constructed for smooth ferrying of ballot boxes like in previous elections. In addition Nepal Army could be requested to take care of stranded election officers, foreign poll observers and those needing medical evacuation. It will mean outstretching resources in the peak of the Himalayan tourism season and where foreign observers, including Kathmandu based diplomats might seek swift first hand observation visits by air from poll station A in some remote Himalayan village to location B in the Terai plains.
Nepal’s Home Minister Madhav Ghimire has made commendable leadership efforts to mobilise the right government resources at the right time, but this is where the foreign friends of Nepal such as the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, and the G-8 can help Nepal most. They can help by providing the necessary logistic supply to Nepal Army and the National Election Commission.
Guaranteeing the average Nepali voter prime security to cast a free ballot will make the November 2013 CA Poll a true success in the Asian democratic theater. Lest one forget, Nepal witnessed 21 governments in the past 21 years with six constitutions averted or rewritten in the past six decades. One hopes Regmi ji will keep the Nepali flag unfurled high as Nepal ascends one step higher on the Asia-Pacific democratic club by conducting a successful CA Poll this November.