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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > June 14, 2008 > Electing the Nepal Constituent Assembly: A People’s Mandate

Mainstream Vol. XLVI No 26

Electing the Nepal Constituent Assembly: A People’s Mandate

Sunday 15 June 2008, by Manvi Priya

The much awaited and negotiated elections to the Constituent Assembly (CA) in Nepal took place on April 10, 2008. Having studied the debates around Constitution-building and interviewed the actors of Nepalese politics and civil society last year, it was exciting to witness the CA elections and glean from them the possibilities of a new Nepal.

South Asian Partnership-International (SAP-I) had organised an Election Observation Team of South Asians for the historic event. It formed three groups of Election Observers (EOs); one went to Madhes (the southern belt of Nepal adjoining the Indian border), the second headed to Kaski (in the hills, near Pokhara) and the third stayed back in Kathmandu. The focus of SAP-I was Violence on Women in Politics. They were also undertaking field research with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (Int IDEA) extensively interviewing the women candidates. I was part of the Madhes group.

The following are preliminary notes and reflections from the field. The ‘reality’ may be substantially different at other places than those visited by the team I was part of, but in the debriefings and the media most of these observations were reinforced and corroborated.

April 8, 2008

We took the morning Budha Air flight to Biratnagar from Kathmandu. It is the second largest town in Nepal after Kathmandu, and the industrial town from where G.P. Koirala started as a trade union leader.

We met a woman candidate from the CPN (UML) in Morang-5. She was from a Madhesi family, her husband being a farmer and father a Sarpanch in his time when Nepal had the infamous Panchayat system. She had done her schooling till the tenth standard and had been a member of the City Council on a seat reserved for women. A former Mayor of Morang received us and led us to meet her and kept a close watch on her, and us, throughout the meeting. She was a forceful speaker, fluent in Bhojpuri, Hindi and Nepali (in that order). She hinted at relatively less support from the party monetarily and in campaigning. [To be fair to the party, let me also say here that in this constituency, against such candidates her party (CPN-UML) would not have dreamt of winning irrespective of the gender of their candidate.] She also specifically outlined the problems faced by women political workers. ‘They do not get much concessions from the family, they still have to do all the household chores, while a man involved in politics could get away with all his responsibilities. The women make much more effort to be successful in politics; just to attend a political meeting they have to walk for hours, they cannot ask their husbands to drop them on the cycle if going for political work.’ As a member of the City Council, she recalled how the ‘society’ had looked down upon her and treated her family almost as an outcast. When asked about her three priority areas in making the Constitution, her prompt reply was—education, equality (specially equal treatment to be given to girls and boys) and women’s health. Clearly, these were different from the main election issues.

Though it was good to see a candidate like her, it requires several other enabling conditions for her to play any meaningful role in the Constitution-making process. To sit in parliament, to have the confidence to speak from her experience, oppose the men or carry them along, to tell everybody what women in her village would want to be put in the Constitution, needs a lot more. It needs an openly encouraging environment, presence of other women, support of the party bosses and the family and, above all, support in the House.

We also went to meet the District Coordinators of a large domestic observers’ group [National Election Monitoring Alliance (NEMA)]. They seemed a bit apprehensive and predicted some instances of violation of the Election Code of Conduct (CoC). But overall everything seemed in control.

April 9, 2008

Even a day before the elections, people had doubts whether the elections will take place, though everybody wanted them to happen. We went for a pre-poll booth reconnaissance to three districts: Morang, Sunsari and Dharan. Morang was relatively more urban and less far-flung; there appeared no special threat of violence or other CoC violations there. Sunsari was known to be a sensitive district as was also notified by the EC. It is divided into six constituencies, Sunsari-5 being most sensitive from where, inter alia, Sujata Koirala (NC) and Upendra Yadav (MPRF) were contesting. A major bomb explosion in a mosque in Sunsari-3 just a few days ago (on March 29, 2008) had left two people killed and two injured.

Among the three districts, Dharan appeared to be the most well-off. Situated at the foothills and largely populated by hill tribes, a sizable section of its population is employed by the British Army, and others received pension from the British Army equal to the British citizens after a prolonged legal battle. The electorate was consequently smaller and there was no apprehension of violence on the polling day, according to the EC officials stationed there.

In the morning of the day before the election, we met another woman candidate. It will not be politically incorrect to mention that she is the daughter of one of the seniormost leaders of Nepal today, because that is her politics. She had little charisma, but wielded much power. It was embarrassing to sit amongst them and hear her talk about her electorate. ‘These people do not understand anything, if I tell them about constitutional rights they will not understand anything. So I tell them that I will give you electricity, roads etc. You know it is such a difficult job for me to make them understand anything, it is like I have to take their workshop everyday, with each one of them. It is very difficult for me.’ (For reference, the people she was talking about are culturally similar to the rural population of North Bihar.) According to her, what made her task harder was the remoteness of her constituency, Sunsari-5. Except being away from Kathmandu, even the remotest of villages she mentioned (Laukahi, Bhutaha) were within an hour’s drive from Biratnagar with more than decent drivable roads. One could enter the constituency driving for ten minutes from Biratnagar. She thought it obvious that she was going to win but she was making an effort to win with a big margin. (The results showed that she came third in the constituency with a difference of 14,594 votes between her and the winner.)

April 10, 2008

Finally the most awaited day for a decade, and at one level more than five decades when demands for an elected Constituent Assembly were first made in Nepal, had arrived. As I awoke in the morning, I rushed out to smell the air. It seemed the air was confused, trying to be neutral was almost smelling of nothingness! We started off early and reached a polling station (PS) in Duhabi at 6:50 am. There were hundreds of people outside the polling station waiting to enter the closed gates of a school, a common polling location in South Asia. One could feel the excitement, but also some apprehensions till it actually started. There were temporary bamboo fences created to organise the booths and the EC staff was busy preparing for voting to begin. At 7 am we heard a lot of people shouting and the locked door being banged. Everybody was alarmed but within a few seconds the expressions changed as everyone realised that they were ‘benign’ voters eager to vote. The gate had to be opened immediately. People ran in and competed with each other to get in the queues first. Within a few moments there were long queues of women all around and some men too. It was an almost universal trend for women to come in early to vote to return home to take care of the household chores and children. Things were quite orderly within the booth, at least before it all started! There were two parallel set-ups inside each booth, one for the First-Past-The-Poll (FPTP) system and the other for Proportional Representation (PR). The two distinct set-ups reduced the chances of invalid votes as the FPTP ballot paper was given first, ballot cast and put in the ballot box. The voter then had to approach the other EC official, sign and get the PR ballot paper which was to be stamped in another enclosure and then put in a different ballot box, both being translucent they were differentiated by the information sheets pasted on them and the colour of the ballot papers. We distributed ourselves in different polling booths and planned to observe the first four-five voters cast their vote and then move on to more sensitive areas of the constituency.

I was standing in a booth at 7:30 am and polling had not started. People were getting impatient, there were sporadic shouts, but not of protest. They were bucking up the EC officials to hurry up! There was happiness and colour all around. People were milling around and yet, somehow, there seemed to be more smiles than actual number of people! The poll finally started. The first man after casting his vote could not walk, he was jumping with joy and walking away patting everybody’s back. We soon moved towards Laukahi. The polling booth, inside and outside, was full of people. There were a lot of kids too, some casting votes, others taking care of the younger ones. There was a group of men sitting on a side and observing the process. We asked them why they were there, they said they are waiting to cast their vote, let others do it first. It was a place for the whole village to hang out for the day. In one polling booth both (because only two were present) polling agents were women. As I was standing outside the booth and figuring out what was going on inside, one of them walked up to me and told me how the other one was misleading people. She was a close relative of ‘the’ leader of a recently arisen party, clearly rural when compared to the other one who looked like a primary school teacher from a city representing a party which had been a strong force in the region for long but now waning. So the latter from outside the ‘secret’ enclosure was ‘instructing’ where to stamp the swastika. When asked why this was being allowed, the former replied, ‘It is OK; why create a hassle for a few votes; we are in any case winning by a wide margin.’ As we were getting out of this station we got the news that some untoward incident had happened in Bhutaha. We rushed to the concerned polling station. It was about 10:30 am. The whole village was silent. Some elder men were sitting in small groups outside their homes. Even before we could ask, they pointed towards the polling booth when they saw us coming. As we were getting out of the jeep, a truckload of Armed Police Force (APF) arrived and by the time we entered the station, they had taken their positions. As we entered the Presiding Officers were eager to tell us that everything was normal and nothing had happened inside the booth, though they accepted that polling was stalled for about twenty minutes and had just restarted. A voter, hawker by profession, was attacked and done to death by a mob incited by a candidate from within the station. The candidate gave a speech to all the queued-up voters and others present from a ‘podium’. This incited skirmishes amongst the voters and soon his supporters got after the hawker with escalating aggression. As violence erupted the voters rushed back to their homes. About one-third voting had taken place by this time. After the critically injured man was taken to hospital (where he breathed his last), a semblance of calm returned. Soon voters started trickling in again. Some changes were observed; less women dared to come back. The two segregated lines of men and women did not exist anymore, nor did anybody make an effort to recreate them. In case of a complaint or a disabled person coming to vote, everybody was eagerly helping, something more than what was observed in other stations. In one of the booths, a security guard had taken over the job of guiding the voters. He came across a man who wanted to vote, but was physically and mentally challenged. He was in a fix how to explain to him what to do. He enacted the whole process for him a number of times to make him understand, both the times before he cast his vote. After casting the FPTP vote he lost the slip on which his voter number was written and he was supposed to show it to the EC Officer giving out the PR ballot papers. He started sulking and everybody around searched for the slip of paper which was, thankfully, soon found. He first touched it on his forehead, then put it on his heart and then kept it in his pocket as if to save it for eternity.

Just the night before, a socket bomb was planted by one person in the house of another. The latter came to inform us in the presence of the former, who did not bother to dispute the allegations.

AFTER staying at this sensitive station for about three hours, we decided to visit a nearby polling station and then decide our next course of action. When we were returning from the other polling station, just ahead of the Bhutaha station, there was a group of young men who carried a big tyre and were about to burn it in the middle of the road. As we reached the spot, they got ready to pelt stones or worse put the tyre on a jeep and burn it, actually both in that order. A few party agents from amongst them, whom we had met earlier at the polling station, controlled the younger ones and asked us to go back towards the station fast. As we were going back we breathed once again and did not think what to do except go to the PS and be there till things outside cool down. The euphoria outside could spill into the booth too, and it was our job to ‘observe’ what went on inside a polling station. But, the senior members of the group thought that it was best to ‘get out of the place as fast as one could’ by a kaccha village road. As we did so, an important question arose: what were our priorities and what our was mandate? According to some, it was to save the vehicle, save our lives and ‘cover’ as many stations as possible, in that order. What if violence had re-erupted inside the booth, more persons had to lose their lives, what if voters were not allowed to vote anymore, what if the booth was captured after we left? And could our presence be a deterrent? Could we have saved some lives, could we have saved the station from going for a re-poll? Would that not be the true function of an election observer? For whatever reason, the fact is that we reached with the APF, and the APF did not know what had happened even after being there, they were as passive as an armed police force can possibly be. A candidate was present in the booth when we were there, the one who had allegedly incited violence; he had a whole durbar around him and a smirk on his face every time he looked at us and as people complained against him. But he did not continue behaving as he was doing before we came there, and this was even after a high-up officer of the APF had greeted him most cordially and introduced him to other officers without ever ‘requesting’ him to leave the polling station. After we showed no intent of moving from the station, he left the PS and presumably organised the mob outside. The next day it was the first place to be mentioned in all news reports as the only prominent incident of violence.

In any case, we moved on and visited seven more PSs in Sunsari-5 and Sunsari-3. There were at least two hundred people sitting outside a station we visited it at 4:40 pm. There were all sorts of small vendors there, selling ice-cream to cigarettes to papad. Inside the compound, an old jute godown, there were hardly any voters, but few youngsters, unmistakably ‘Maoist’, all ready to cast votes. As we entered they were shooed off. Now we were in a fix; to leave or stay there till the ballot boxes were sealed. The poll officials started announcing ‘only fifteen minutes left to close the polling’. The youth who had been shooed away and asked to wait till we go were getting impatient now. At that point, we moved ahead as our ‘observation’ was over. The penultimate PS was at the end of a huge compound, we could not make out what was happening in the booths from the entrance but they could surely see us coming. Reaching there we heard that polling had been stalled here for half-an-hour and the booth had been captured. There were a lot of domestic observers and they reported that things were fine since polling re-started. The last PS we were able to visit was in Duhabi, a beautiful park with a headless statue of a poet, which had been beheaded during the Madhes movement, since he was identified as a pahadi poet. The gates were shut and people were peeping in with the same interest as in the morning, if not more. As we went in, the boxes were being sealed. The left-over ballot papers were being packed and the gunny bags being stitched by women volunteers. Each booth was mandated to have at least one woman; mostly fulfilled by volunteers from the area. At most places they were given the job of applying the indelible ink, some EC officials even called it the nailpolis and one could see the men shrinking inside when they had to get the nailpolis put. One saw few innovative things to keep the ink bottle in place by making a cow dung or clay encasing. We noticed some women APF Commanders heading the PS security, but not a single woman EC official.

By this time, we had visited just about ten PSs and were dead tired due to the heat. As we were about to leave the station, the Commander (a woman) at the PS asked us to stay as the boxes had to be carried to the police station to be delivered to the district EC Office. The Police Station was nearby and the boxes were carried by security guards on foot. It was an overwhelming moment; the whole street was walking with the boxes, any soul who saw the procession joined in, including the street dogs.

All the PSs we visited had high voter turnout, varying between 60 to 80 per cent, generally men equalling women. There were booths where there were more women even by the end of the day, but this may be due to migration also. A considerable proportion of absenteeism and proxy voting and was attributable to the young women who had got married and were now living elsewhere. Close to the end of the day, when we asked the EC officials about the voter turnout at one booth, they said that there were more women but when we insisted on the actual statistics, women were just about equal. Perceptions!

The Final Tally
PartyCandidates Elected Candidates (FPTP) PR Total
Female Male Total Elected Candidates VotesPolled
Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)[CPN(M)] 23 97 120 100 3144204 220
Nepali Congress (NC) 2 35 37 73 2269883 110
Communist Party of Nepal (UML) [CPN(UML)] 1 32 33 70 2183370 103
Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (MPRF) 2 28 30 22 678327 52
Tarai Madhes Democratic Party (TMDP) 1 8 9 11 338930 20
Sadhvawana Party (Mahato) (NSP-M) 0 4 4 5 167517 9
Janamorcha Nepal 0 2 2 5 164381 7
Nepal Workers and Peasants Party (NWPP) 0 2 2 2 74089 4
Rastriya Janamorcha 0 1 1 3 106224 4
Independents 0 2 2 - - 2
Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) 0 0 0 8 263431 8
Communist Party of Nepal-ML 0 0 0 8 243545 8
Communist Party of Nepal (United) 0 0 0 5 154968 5
Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal) 4 110519 4
Rastriya Janshakti Party 0 0 0 3 102147 3
Federal Democratic National Forum 0 0 0 2 71958 2
Jana Mukti Party 0 0 0 2 53910 2
Communist Party of Nepal-Unified 0 0 0 2 48600 2
Nepal Sadhvawana Party (Anandidevi) (NSP-A) 0 0 0 2 55671 2
Nepali Janata Dal 0 0 0 2 48990 2
Others (one each) 0 0 0 6 190966 6
Total 29 211 240 335 * 575

* Under the PR system 10,07,39,078 valid votes were cast.

There was a sense of general goodwill that prevailed and a determination to make the process successful was evident in all areas we visited and in all the actors. There was a very non-confrontationist attitude, both willing and unwilling, for example, the two party volunteers at Laukahi. The EC officials, especially if a pahadi in Madhes, were very non-confrontationist. There mandate apparently was to facilitate people to vote, no questions asked, ‘if you want to vote you are welcome; it is a historic election and let everybody vote’ was the general sentiment. However, this is not to say that there were no complaints of names not being there or votes already being cast, but these were relatively few. The party agents were helping each other find the names and numbers of voters to accelerate the process. Most observers were wonderstruck by this, because of the kind of hostility one had heard about amongst the political forces, especially in the Terai region.
Some suggested that the community itself, being present in large numbers in and around the PSs, acted as community observers. However, clarity on the specific role of each class of actors in the polling process; the EC officials, party agents, other volunteers and the security persons needs to be understood to a greater extent. The challenge is to keep the community enthused while strengthening the structures required for free elections.

Some of the questions that linger in one’s mind are as follows:
What is the role of international observers? Where to draw the line between being observers and being sensitive individuals? Not having a mandate to interfere, what does an EO do when witnessing violence? Can they intervene and try to save lives?
The role of EOs is in itself a tricky question and does not really have a clear answer. On one hand, it is a welcome mechanism and we would like the Election Commission of India to open the Indian elections to observers. On the other hand, we oppose excessive international election observation as being wasteful and undermining sovereignty. At the same time, it appears to be fast becoming an industry in itself.
[The thoughts expressed here evolved from discussions with the SAP-I Team, Vijay Pratap from the Socialist International Team and Udhab and Indra Pyakurel from the NEMA.]

Postscript
About one thousand international (both short term and long term) and one lakh domestic observers were a witness to the elections. The elections were dubbed ‘largely successful and credible though marked by intimidation and violence and other serious problems’. According to the Election Commission of Nepal, 75 polling stations in 19 constituencies saw a re-poll. Elections in two constituencies were postponed earlier due to the death of a candidate from each constituency.
The 601-member Constituent Assembly has 240 members elected by the First-Past-The-Poll system and 335 by Proportional Representation. The rest (26) are to be nominated by the Prime Minister. The Election Commission (EC) will use the Modified Sainte Lague Method to allocate 335 seats under the PR system. The term of the Constituent Assembly is of two years, extendable up to six months in case the drafting is not completed due to proclamation of emergency in the country. The CA will also act as an interim legislature, until a new government is elected through general elections under the new Constitution.

The Results

THE final results are available now. The two forces, which were the primary catalysts of Jan Andolan II [CPN(M)] and Jan Andolan III (MPRF and TMDP), have won with big margins. The older, more traditional and Centrist parties have trailed behind. CPN(UML), which some felt would emerge as the single largest party, lost decisively with their General Secretary losing both the constituencies he was contesting from. Eleven Ministers of the SPA Government have lost in the CA elections, including the Home Minister.
Amongst the 54 officially registered parties, only the CPN(M) tally consisted of a sizable number of women candidates in FPTP results. However, the PR candidates are expected to increase the proportion of women in other parties too. A considerable number of candidates from previously unrepresented indigenous communities have also won the election especially in the western region of the country. It is interesting to note that the RPP and RPP-N, known to be the most pro-palace political parties, have fared much better in PR than FPTP, gaining eight and four seats in PR respectively and none in FPTP. Only eight political parties have been able to win a seat in FPTP, while 25 parties gained seats through the PR system.

Final PR Candidates and Inclusiveness within PR

THE political parties have to submit the list of selected candidates by May 2 from amongst the already announced list of PR candidates. As per the Election Act, 2007, the parties winning more than one seat under the PR system are required to allot half their seats to women candidates. The parties fielding more than 100 candidates under the PR system are required to, besides allotting 50 per cent seats to women, have 37.8 per cent indigenous communities, 31.2 per cent Madhesis, 13 per cent Dalits and four per cent other backward groups in their list. The remaining 30.2 per cent seats can be allotted to other persons.
The CPN(M) has emerged as the single largest party in the CA. One can only hope that they remember the goals and ideals for which they have been struggling over the last decade and do not get too swayed by the pulls and attractions of power. Others, the other Nepalese political parties and other nations, must also ensure the success of the movement towards lasting peace and prosperity in Nepal. Unfortunately, two near revolutions and the largely successful CA elections cannot wish away the challenges and pressures that face a landlocked South Asian country sandwiched between India and China. It should be our collective responsibility not to let the positive developments over the last two years go waste and belie the people’s heightened democratic aspirations.

Manvi Priya is a Law graduate. She can be reached at e-mail : manvipriya@gmail.com

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