Date not enough

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba seems determined to announce a poll date this month after the January 13 deadline passed with the rebels refusing to talk to this government. Perhaps he is haunted by the possibility of being pronounced incapable of holding the promised polls for a second time. Now the government is consulting with top security officials about extra security arrangements needed for the event. Apart from stressing the obvious necessity of holding the polls in phases, the security officials are said to have asked the coalition partners to make their positions clear on elections. Unlike Deuba, the CPN-UML seems to think that the polls would be meaningless without an understanding or agreement with the Maoists. The RPP does not appear very enthusiastic, too. And the four “anti-regression” parties have branded the idea as Deuba’s ploy to prolong his stay in power. Domestic and informed international public opinion have expressed similar doubts.

Elections would settle the constitutional row by electing a parliament and thereby a government. Deuba may announce the date, thus meeting the Royal condition of initiating the electoral process within the given time. But announcement is the easy part, carrying the promise through to a successful conclusion is a far more difficult one. Elections are not just ballot papers. Apart from the Election Commission and the security agencies making their preparations, the candidates must have enough time and the environment in which they could go to the people and campaign freely. Voters should also feel free and confident to go to the polling booths and cast the vote. The lakhs of people displaced by the insurgency should be enabled to return to cast their vote. Mass participation is required, apart from the elections being free, fair and credible. Can the government ensure all these things?

If not, the polls would not reflect the popular will and democracy would be reduced to a mockery. In the event of a boycott by major political parties, the elections would lose much of their legitimacy. Nepal might then enact anothor Georgia or Ukraine or even worse. On the other hand, indefinite rule by Article 127 cannot be defended. The run-up to the elections is likely to be bloodier, as the Maoists will do their utmost to disrupt the polls. The rebels, whose writ rules much of the countryside, will probably announce blockades, even a nationwide bandh on the polling day, besides detonating bombs, killing candidates and polling officers. The government should therefore consider the full implications before taking the decision. If Deuba could not hold the elections this time around, he would share the failure with the palace, not alone, as he is acting under Article 127.