Eat now, vote laterAmid the euphoria with which the public and the media have received the election results due to the hopes of political stability that they seem to offer, several serious aspects which tarnished this and previous elections have been clearly ignored.
Amid the euphoria with which the public and the media have received the election results due to the hopes of political stability that they seem to offer, several serious aspects which tarnished this and previous elections have been clearly ignored. This is not the first election that was marred by corruption, irregularities and disregard for the electoral code of conduct. In our elections, the principles of equal opportunity and free, fair and impartial polls are breached right from the nomination of candidates to the actual voting day. These issues do get raised in the media and at public discussions, but talk about winning and losing candidates, the parties, new governments and their agenda often drowns them out.
Far from free and fair
Corruption, nepotism and lack of accountability are rigidly embedded in Nepal’s political culture. A ‘clean’ person does not mean someone who has maintained transparency and accountability, but someone who has compromised his or her credibility to a lesser degree. The same applies to performance or delivery. The bureaucracy and subsequent governments have delivered so little over the decades that even a small gesture of achievement gets the appearance of being big in terms of its impact. And so when someone with a ‘clean’ image indulges in corruption or misuses his or her authority, the public often says, “At least he or she has done something, let him or her indulge in a little bit of corruption here and there.”
Given this complacent attitude to corruption, irregularities and abuse of authority in the public psyche, it is only natural that they have become a core part of elections. If we follow the opinions in the media or day-to-day discussions in public spaces, it is easy to see that the common people, bureaucrats, media persons and even intellectuals regard such irregularities in the electoral process as common, even acceptable. Due to the belief that ‘a little bit of corruption, manipulation or irregularity is all right’, the serious issues that make elections unfair and not free have been simplified.
Whenever the media and intellectuals touch upon this issue, which itself is a comparatively rare event, they have been quick to term them as special compromises necessary to bring peace and give continuity to democratic practices in Nepal. A key example is the 2008 election when a majority of the seats won by the then CPN (Maoist) were alleged to have been secured by extreme manipulation of the electoral process including rampant booth capturing and threats.
Widespread malpractices tainted the recent election too, right from the commencement of the distribution of election tickets to the actual polling day. Tickets were openly distributed based on the individual’s financial status. Pushpa Kamal Dahal openly conceded to elections being increasingly unaffordable to contest. CPN-UML Vice-Chairman Yubaraj Gyawali, explaining his compulsion to choose a seat in the proportional representation election despite wanting to contest in the first-past-the-post election, said, “I’ve neither land nor contractors to contest elections.” Hence, the spirit of equal opportunity and impartial, free and fair election is brutally breached right from the get go.
Campaign finance has become the next subject of scrutiny. Although the Election Commission has set spending limits, evidence shows that they are openly flouted. During the local polls, the upper limit for a mayoral candidate was fixed at Rs700,000, but a candidate in Birgunj was quoted as saying that he had set aside Rs40 million for his election campaign. The pomp of election rallies and assemblies, and the lavish feasts thrown for voters during almost every election campaign, easily show that exorbitant and corrupt campaigns are the rule rather than the exception.
From buying votes with both cash and goods to organising feasts and dispensing alcohol, a lot of money is spent to attract voters. As the clock struck the beginning of the silent period during the second phase of the federal and provincial elections, news reports were filled with accounts of feasts and distribution of meat, fish and alcohol to woo voters. In Rautahat, according to a digital newspaper, different parties delivered meat, fish and alcohol to most voter families, particularly in Dalit and poor settlements. A Dalit in Baitadi recounted how candidates offered cash to voters in Dalit settlements and asked them to vote for them.
On the actual voting day, photos circulated on social media of feasts being held by different political parties right beside polling stations, including in the Kathmandu Valley. There were reports of threats too. A news report stated that in Dhading, a ward chairman in Jwalamukhi Rural Municipality threatened Dalit families that their water supply would be cut off if they did not vote for a particular party.
Vote buying and other forms of corruption during elections have become so common that people themselves are known to ask for cash or goods in exchange for their votes. Dr Rajan Bhattarai, a CPN-UML candidate from Kathmandu, said in a television interview after his defeat that 12 families with 57 voters had asked him to pay the cost of their newly renovated pipeline in exchange for their votes. Another candidate Surya Raj Acharya of Bibeksheel Sajha Party said that people in his constituency in a remote part of Lalitpur had asked him when he would be bringing money for them. Prakash Sharan Mahat of the Nepali Congress, who contested the election from a constituency in Kathmandu, blamed his defeat to extreme manipulation of the electoral process by his opponents.
The irony is that we are trying to build a democratic society on the foundation of these undemocratic processes. We cannot make the process right overnight, but how long it will take us to reach that state will depend on how seriously we consider these issues. It is important to reflect what kind of ‘people’s representatives’ we are electing if candidates are selected for their ability to spend rather than for their competence and leadership qualities. If a voter decides to vote for a particular candidate on the basis of the amount of meat or money offered, what does this say about the way the public thinks about the worth of the vote?
How many voters think this way? Do the candidates they vote for get elected? What does it mean *for the future of the democratic practice and culture if they are elected? These questions were rarely asked during the elections, and entirely forgotten after the elections. It is vital that these questions become subjects of serious debate.
- Gautam writes on contemporary social and cultural issues