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Nepal's election is the first test for new constitution

There are many factors making up this landmark event

Prakash Khadka, Kathmandu

Prakash Khadka, Kathmandu

Published: April 21, 2017 04:13 AM GMT

Updated: April 21, 2017 09:50 AM GMT

Nepal's election is the first test for new constitution

Rastriya Prajatantra Party activists chant slogans during a protest in front of the election commission in Kathmandu on March 20. Nepal police fired tear gas and clashed with activists protesting against the removal of clauses on monarchy and Hinduism from their party's statute. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)

A crowd of people celebrated in the remote village of Gorkha to the sound of traditional instruments. Their party had just won the local election. I was in my teens and under the minimum age to vote and that was only thing I remember about Nepal's last local election in 1997. 

The Maoist insurgency had just begun, groups of people calling themselves revolutionaries used to come and halt our school classes. They made students go and seize food from the villagers to feed the insurgents.

After the war ended in 2006, a new hope was raised. I had the chance to observe elections for the constitutional assembly in 2008 and 2013. 

However, in 2006, local elections were held in some municipalities under King Gyanendra but were boycotted by major political parties and had a very low voter turnout. The monarchy was abolished soon after.

Finally, with the promulgation of the new constitution in 2015 and local elections scheduled for May 14 it seems the government is serious about implementing the new constitution.

Over 14 million Nepalese are eligible to vote for more than 36,600 local representatives in 744 units.

To make local bodies inclusive, Nepal's constitution orders the compulsory representation of women. Women in Nepal constitute over 51 percent while Dalits are about 13 percent.

In the old unitary Nepal, for centuries, power was exercised by a ruling class from a central governing authority. The upheaval of the past 20 years has changed everything. How will this new election further alter the governing system?  

People hope for prosperity, political stability and development. Power once came from the royal palace and now it has been transferred to the villages. With a locally-elected leadership, people hope that the democratic values of the constitution may help obtain higher economic growth via the decentralized decision making system.

If the local election goes ahead, people believe that half the political problems will be solved.

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Preparation and challenges 

The Election Commission is working hard to prepare. Ballot papers have been printed. The commission has established offices in each district.

There will be three elections under Nepal's new federal system: national, provincial and local. At least 79 political parties will take part even though 190 parties registered.

The government is recruiting an additional 75,000 temporary police ahead of the poll. The expense is expected to be over 40 billion Nepalese rupees (US$ 3.9 million). The ministry of finance has already disbursed half the amount.

The Election Commission believes the Hindu state and monarchy are contradicted in the constitutional provisions. However, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal, being a pro-Hindu party, has been trying to scrap secularism ever since the new constitution was promulgated.

They may think the Election Commission's move is against constitutional provision of ideological freedom. However, Article 269, Clause 5 does not allow any political party to use the name, objective, insignia or to jeopardize the religious and communal unity of the country.

As this election is going to be held after a long gap, there are a huge number of voters who have never been able to vote before. So, educating them about the process is highly important.

However, since this election was planned in only a short amount of time, many members of the public do not know the proper way of voting. The long list of political parties on the ballot paper will be confusing for many.

Most people may just follow their family tradition while voting without thinking who would make a suitable candidate. 

I see this election as a fundamental process in the enforcement of the new constitution. Yet, there are still several issues such as federal boundaries, electoral processes, religious freedom, minority groups and forms of government to address properly.

Some of the regional political parties from Terai (the lowland region in southern Nepal that lies south of the outer foothills of the Himalayas) are not yet supportive of the election. Their major issues, including the delineation of provincial boundaries, have still not been tabled officially. Their opposition and the uncertainty of their participation in the polls could dilute the importance of the election.

In the absence of state-level legal instruments and governing mechanisms which fall under the authority of local bodies, it will be highly challenging for newly-elected representatives to function well. The vacuum created by the absence of polls has led to politicization of various public spheres. It will be a mess for the initial few years.

Even though the civil war ended in 2006, some of the Maoist fractions are still out of the political mainstream. A semi-underground faction has already committed to protest the election. The party thinks that the poll is not in the public favor.

There are some groups who still support the monarchy and Hindu state. It remains to be seen how new political ideologies will be able to manage the great old ones.

Huge numbers of political parties have occupied political spaces just to create political obstacles if things are not going their way. Parties and their leaders need to ally themselves to something higher than law and order.

Despite the general social harmony, religious tolerance and cultural richness, the ground situation is still deplorable. Most of us believe that a lack of political vision and honesty may be the main cause. Yet, the Nepalese public are optimistic for economic prosperity and social transformation from their newly elected leaders.

Prakash Khadka is a peace and human rights activist as well as the Nepal representative of Pax Romana, the international Catholic movement for intellectual and cultural affairs.

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