Bharatpur lessons

Published On: July 25, 2017 01:30 AM NPT By: Bishal Thapa

Bharatpur would not have been significant if it were an isolated case. But it was not an isolated case.

Bharatpur, the headquarters of Chitwan district, has always been a strategic metropolis. Located roughly in the southern center of Nepal, in close proximity of major cities across the country, it has a geographic vantage, which in turn has fuelled its recent emergence as a commercial hub.

These days Bharatpur is more than a strategic trade junction. Events in the city have thrust it into a pivotal position in Nepal’s evolution. Which way Nepal will go could depend on what we choose to learn from the drama unfolding around the election to the post of mayor for Bharatpur Metropolitan City.

On May 28, the Election Commission suspended the counting of votes for the Bharatpur local elections after 90 ballots for the mayor’s position were torn in Ward 19. At the time of the incident, the two leading candidates for the mayor, Renu Dahal of CPN (Maoist Center) and Devi Gyawali of CPN-UML were running neck and neck, with Gyawali slightly in the lead.

Maoist representatives at the counting station have been accused of tearing ballots. Many questions remain. Other than acknowledging the incident as unfortunate and launching an investigation, the Election Commission has not provided substantive details. The political parties involved are also yet to give a clear formal statement. 

The Election Commission ordered re-polling in Ward 19 but the Supreme Court stayed the decision. A final hearing was scheduled for the Sunday, July 23. 

I believe it is important to understand Bharatpur’s election in the right context.  First, although the incident has violated the sanctity of elections, it is not a big cause for concern. 

Let us put things in perspective. We are a fragile democracy. This was the first local election in two decades. Ms. Dahal, the Maoist candidate in Bharatpur, was no other than Prachanda’s daughter, heir to the legacy of the Maoist rebel self-labeled as the fierce one.

We assume Ms. Dahal grew up among guns, bullets, violence and anger against a system they were determined to defeat. As part of the insurgency, she may have positioned a rifle on her shoulder, taken aim, cocked the safety and fired into somebody’s forehead, all with easy determination.

Better tear ballots 

As a nation, we are better off having Ms. Dahal as a candidate instructing her cadres to tear a few ballots than a guerrilla rebel firing her rifle into people’s foreheads. A few torn ballots are par for course for the transition from war to democratic peace; the important thing is to keep Ms. Dahal engaged in the process. The democratic process itself is not in jeopardy because the ballots were torn. 

Second, although the Election Commission has appeared weak in this case, it is also not a reason to worry.

The Election Commission has considerable authority to enforce the election code of conduct, sanction political parties and even disqualify candidates. But even against such visible outrage as tearing of ballots, it has chosen to tread carefully. It is clear the commission will not exercise its authority in any significant manner and it appears relieved that the courts will decide what to do next. 

Again, put things in perspective. Bharatpur was one election. Other elections across the country went off relatively smoothly. There are big stakes in Bharatpur. Prachanda’s ego is on the line. No father will want to see his daughter lose an election; Prachanda may be the fierce one but he is still a doting father with the same sensibilities as the rest of us.

The failure of the commission to respond conclusively to election aggression doesn’t undermine democracy or the institution. On the contrary, it is a smart decision—it keeps the nation on course for the institutionalization of democracy without being hung up on battles that will sap energy, distract focus and offer few tangible rewards.   

Centralized trouble

The real trouble with Bharatpur is that it displays how the greatest achievement of our constitution—decentralization—is being undermined. 

Decentralization that enables decision making at the local level is enshrined in the constitution and this is one of the greatest—if not the greatest—accomplishments of new Nepal. Local elections that sought to put that vision for decentralization into motion was extraordinary. 

But the way in which national political parties participated and engaged in local elections undermines the spirit of decentralization. It was as if political parties worked to enshrine decentralization in the constitution in the belief that the principle didn’t apply to them. 
Decentralization, in the case of Nepal, will be an effective method for development only if it truly places local decision-making in the hands of local administrations, institutions and communities. It will be effective if local administrations are genuinely empowered with checks and balances that are locally enforced.

Nepal’s political parties are now the biggest obstacles to decentralization. The way candidates were selected, issues framed and campaigns pursued all reflected a top down approach. Most elections were never about local issues; they were largely about how national parties used their local organizational capabilities. 

Bharatpur election is important for this reason—it is a glaring illustration of how political interference has already permeated down to local affairs. 

A high degree of political machination is already in play at the local level. Ms. Dahal’s candidacy for mayor was reportedly endorsed by Nepali Congress, which did not field a candidate for the position. Local Congress cadres objected to the agreement but were overruled. In protest, they reportedly cast their votes for Congress in the ballot paper even though there was no candidate of their own.

Across the country 

Bharatpur would not have been significant if it were an isolated case. But it was not an isolated case. 

Across the country, national parties went hard into play at the local level. They brought their ideology. They brought their money. They brought their baggage. And most importantly, they brought centralization and top down management with them.

The net result is deepening of political polarization at the local level. The idea that people would select local leaders to get local things done, that local leaders would respond to local issues and be held accountable locally now looks unlikely.   

The opportunity that decentralization offered to Nepal is at risk. After years of struggle to put together a constitution that offered Nepal an amazing breakthrough model for development based on local participation, political parties are the biggest bottleneck to realization of that model. 

Somebody ought to tell Prachanda that if he has aspirations for his daughter’s political future, he should make her a minister at the center or at the provincial level. Somebody ought to tell Ms. Dahal that if she is going to be the heir to Prachanda’s political legacy, she should aim for higher places, like a cabinet post, where politics and politicians are welcome. 

And everyone ought to tell Prachanda, Ms. Dahal and all the other political parties that if they believe in the constitution they have promulgated, they need to let local authorities, institutions and communities do their own stuff and decide their own futures.

We must learn the right lessons from Bharatpur and work to prevent local affairs from becoming a mirror reflection of national politics.

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