Touching a raw nerveIf we want to brag about being a democracy, we should have the courage to go through this process of review by the EU EOM
Published at : March 29, 2018
Updated at : March 29, 2018 08:00
I have just gone through the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) Report 2017 and I must say that I am impressed by its thoroughness and by the meticulous critique it has provided on Nepal’s 2017 House of Representative elections. The Nepal government and the Election Commission should be grateful that the EU EOM took the trouble to mobilise its staff and resources to observe the elections, and that it offered such detailed and data-driven feedback on the elections. No internal body within Nepal could have mustered either the staff of 100 highly qualified observers or the resources to visit more than 600 polling stations.
Like any peer review process, the report positively notes the various facets of the generally fair election process and the free media’s role (it observed six media outlets). It also points out various shortcomings and areas for further improvement so Nepal can fully realise democracy that is on par with the international standards of successful Western democracies.
The Government of Nepal invited the EU EOM to observe the election, and as such, the mission reported what it found on the ground and in the electoral process. There is much in the report that should make any Nepali proud because these observers came from the 28 countries in the European Union; they provided a vetting of sorts for the election process and deemed it an overall success. They also made some recommendations that would only make Nepal’s democracy even more robust in the future if followed. But instead of taking pride in the report’s overall findings, some noted left-liberal politicians, fair-minded journalists, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, above all, the Prime Minister of Nepal have taken umbrage. Prime Minister KP Oli has even asked the EU EOM to correct the report. What I want to say to these people is—folks, this is peer review. Learn to take it in and live with it. And work to help improve the process as much as you can. When you invite external reviewers to observe your electoral process (as I did and do to observe my classes and review my articles for tenure, promotion and publication), you are trying to join a comity comprised of the best of the best of democratic nation-states.
I think one of the things that has happened here in the aftermath of the EU EOM report is that Nepali politicians have shown that they are not used to vetting and peer review critique. Just the other day, I was reading an account in Nepal magazine by Achyut Wagle of his encounter with Crown Prince Dipendra in the 1990s. Wagle mentions that the Shah Royal Palace didn’t care about criticism published in Nepali language media, but when it came to English media, the royal family lost its cool because the international community would read the criticism and learn of the flaws in Nepal’s royalty. Critics of the constitution have tirelessly pointed out its flaws and more than 50 people died while protesting against these shortcomings, but that hardly mattered to a majority of the Nepali politicians. Now, however, this invited observer report has touched a nerve and exposed the hypocrisy that is prevalent in Nepal.
Why are Nepali politicians so thin-skinned about the EU EOM peer review?
If we were like the Indians or the Africans, or any others who were once subjected to European colonialism, one could possibly understand this reaction, because these countries suffered for decades under colonial rule. On the other hand, Nepalis take great pride in the fact that Nepal was never a colony of any external power; it was an ally and equal. Then, why not act like a peer instead of acting worse than a former subject of European rule with open wounds?
I think the report has hit where it hurts the most—the manner and intent of making the constitution in such haste in order to tilt the scale structurally in favour of the dominant ethnic group against the traditionally marginalised through the second Constituent Assembly (CA). If one looks at the whole process right from the election of the first CA, its failure, the election of the second CA and the rushed way in which the constitution was passed with dominant parties’ whip and without elaborate and open debate and discussion, one can easily see why these people feel as if their fraud has been finally exposed internationally.
Now, let’s turn to EU EOM’s recommendations that have upset Nepal’s ruling cohorts the most. Minor criticism and recommendations for correcting them—such as the way the Election Commission did not publish invalid votes, barring the election officials and security personnel from voting, insufficient voter education, lack of transparency in campaign finance and lack of timely disclosure to the local voters, even Radio Nepal’s tilt and excessive coverage of incumbent Nepali Congress candidates, lack of enforcement of electoral laws undermining the Code of Conduct and the Election Commission, etc.—perhaps would not have riled the Nepali establishment and their supporters, including the marginalised friendly politicos, to a huge degree. But the EU EOM pointing out the ridiculous arrangement of 31 percent reservation in the proportional representation for the so-called Khas-Arya group is what seems to have caused the real upset. Who are the Khas-Arya? The Nepali-speaking Brahmin, Chhetris and Dasnamis of Nepal. In other words, those who have, by virtue of caste privilege and language come to dominate the Nepali polity ever since the Shah dynasty came to power in 1768.
Granted not everyone in this group has been well-off; granted this group, too, is a minority comprising of 31 percent of the population. But in the power structure—state structure and public sphere—it is not a minority at present. In the three branches of the state, the security forces, the media, political leadership of the three main party, this group far outnumbers other groups. Now, in the future, when this overwhelming number of Khas-Arya group decreases and is at risk of falling lower than its proportional number of about one-third, then this arrangement could be justified. But right now, Dalits (the most oppressed caste group) have the same proportional ratio to their population (13.8 percent) as the Khas-Arya. How is this inclusion? What happens if in India, the upper castes are allowed to compete on merit in elections and other spheres and then given their proportionate number as reservation just like the Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes? This is laughable, and these men who made the constitution want the world to buy into this arrangement. Then, there is criticism regarding the filing of women candidates and patriarchy. That, too, might have riled the ruling elite.
Finally, I would reiterate that inviting a peer group to observe means seeking legitimacy through peer review. I, and my colleagues and the colleges and universities in the United States’ academia, go through this process all the time in order to earn tenure, promotion, accreditation—all ways to gain legitimacy and international standards and quality. The election process in a fledgling democracy like Nepal’s is the same with the difference that Nepal is a sovereign country. But if we want to brag about being a democracy, we should have the courage to go through this process of review and correct the shortcomings. There is no other way to gain international recognition and legitimacy, gentlemen.
Mishra is department Chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States