Trials and errorsHopefully Nepal will adopt best practices of other democracies to produce less flawed election results
This seems to be a season of campaigning and elections. The Nepali Congress (NC) has just concluded its general convention held every four or five years. And in the US, the presidential primary season, held every four years, as a run-up to the presidential election, is in full swing. One may not like the results of an election, but if the process is fair and democratic, one must learn to live with it in a democracy. Of course, the structure of the election may have shortcomings, producing flawed results but they are better than overturning the process itself and rejecting the results.
In Nepal, the political parties may be flawed and ethnically imbalanced, the consequences of a young democracy and more than two centuries of ethnically lopsided political privilege of one group over many, but the way the CPN-UML and the NC have successfully held their conventions and chosen their leaders through elections from the ground up is nothing short of impressive. This growing confidence in the electoral process even within the political parties demonstrates Nepal’s ever-maturing democracy.
This is also a season of elections in the US. I have so far watched all the presidential primary debates of both the Democrats and the Republicans. And I have asked my students, too, to watch them, telling them that this is a season of free education for Americans; they can learn about various issues affecting their country from multiple perspectives in ways that no class in politcal science could teach them.
In the NC election, the result could be said to be regressive and defeatist for many who had hoped for new blood and a forward-looking leadership. But by electing the party founder’s son, who has been calling for the review of the settled fundamental characteristics of the Nepali state—republicanism, secularism and federalism—over a young and dynamic leader like Gagan Thapa, who had led the movement for republicanism and had been quite popular as the highest vote getter as a central committee member in the last convention, it was clear that the party delegates went for the security of the founding family.
In the party president’s election, it was only a matter of choosing the lesser of the three evils because none of the three candidates had much to offer. Krishna Prasad Sitaula’s tricks and behind-the-scene manoeuvres to manipulate the draft of the constitution had exposed him as a leader tied to his primordial loyalties and short-term gains. Save for some tired platitudes about democratic socialism, Ram Chandra Poudel had little to offer as a future leader. And the less said about Sher Bahadur Deuba the better, because much of what he has stood for in the past two decades is fresh in the public memory—horse-trading for power, immature use of force to suppress genuine grievances of the economically, geographically and ethnically marginalised; willingness to compromise personal and democratic dignity to get into the good graces of an equally near-sighted monarch for power and, above all, lack of clear understanding of a complex country and its equally complex future. Will the post of the party president instil wisdom? Given the UML’s example, I doubt it. So, even though the process of the NC is sound, it is clear that the party has come up short in measuring up to the challenges that lie ahead for the country.
The American way
In the US, the presidential primaries have been quite fascinating. Of course, the deck is stacked in favour of candidates who can raise funds. And when one takes the virtually anonymous wealthy donors of the unlimited super packs into account, the electoral system seems to be rigged in favour of the candidate who can equally satisfy the behind-the-scene donors’ special interests. So, in order to win, a candidate has to perform a ‘double dance’—on the one hand, appeal to the people and receive donations from them; and on the other, satisfy the behind-the-scene wealthy donors and their special interests, who pump millions into the super packs and who after the victory demand their pound of flesh. In this scenario, sometimes an Obama comes along who creates waves and the common people propel him to victory. But most often a Bernie Sanders or a Ralph Nader emerges and rants about poverty and injustice, causes some ripples and fades away. It is the first time that a candidate like Donald Trump has emerged with his own tall towers, deep pockets and loud bullying voice and caught the mostly white voters’ attention and aroused their passions. This is also a test of American democracy.
But this prolonged process of intra-party primaries and three or four months of intense inter-party campaigning test the stamina of the candidates, educating them on domestic as well as international issues, toughening their character, sharpening their ideas and tempering their temperament. Especially the dozen or so debates and countless town hall meetings work both ways, educating the public as well as the leaders on the burning issues facing the country. And when a president emerges out of this process of education and toughening, the person, no matter how inadequate in his or her mind and character, stands tall to measure up to the intense scrutiny of the office of the leader of the free world. Certainly, a few have failed but most have left their mark in one or two terms.
Just the opposite is the case in South Asia, including Nepal and India. You can imagine the result when Narendra Modi debates Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi on national television three or four times before a general election, or when Shashank Koirala debates Gagan Thapa, or when Oli first debates Khanal and then Deuba or Prachanda or Baburam. These televised debates would create immense interest in the public, educating them and making choices clear for them while forcing the leaders themselves to clarify their thinking about national issues. But at present, despite the healthy practice of the intra-party election, the national process of choosing parliamentarians and the prime minister depends on behind-the-scene horse-trading in the smoky rooms by the party bosses, faction leaders and power brokers. One hopes that someday the country will adopt the best practices of other democracies to produce less flawed results.