| September 22, 2020

Interview: We should adopt fully proportional electoral system

Former Secretary and Chief Election Commissioner Bhojraj Pokhrel is a keen observer of national politics and likes to keep himself busy these days in assignments in conflict hotspots like Sudan and Myanmar. Mahabir Paudyal caught up with him at his Thapathali residence on Wednesday for his insights into the current constitutional debate, the country's problems in the international context and on the future electoral system.

What do you see as major hurdles in the constitutional process?

First, there is a big difference on the understanding of fundamental issues. It seems like the two sets of leaders are standing on two different islands. Take names and boundaries of future federal provinces. One set thinks federalism will sow seeds of disintegration. This view disappoints the other side. The trust deficit has widened.

Second, ours is not an inclusive society. Certain people are more privileged than others. The underrepresented want a change in this situation. The marginalized want inclusive policy to be implemented right away. Those opposed to it view the marginalized as not ready for inclusion. Third, the same set of leaders is engaged in negotiations, which is opaque.

They hold dialogue behind closed doors and come out to inform the press that things are moving in positive direction. But nothing substantive happens. So they have to start negotiations from scratch every single day. I would suggest that they keep impartial members of civil society or members from other field as witnesses, if not facilitators and mediators. These witnesses would keep record of how dialogue process is progressing, suggest where to resume negotiation process the next day and inform the people on what is actually happening. All these factors have made people distrustful towards leaders.

Do you see this as the major reason for the trust deficit between Madheshi leaders and the ruling parties?

There are other factors as well. It seems we have hurt the sentiments of Madheshis. In a way, we have provoked and angered them. But this has only made the parties in Constituent Assembly weak. This indifference to Madhesh has benefitted radical elements that do not feel obliged to Nepali state because they think it has done them no good. Therefore, Kathmandu must not ignore Madhesh. It should not doubt their nationalist credentials. It will only fuel radicalism and embolden anti-constitution elements.

Political parties seem bent on weakening their rivals. This strategy won't work. Madheshis are seeking identity. They are saying that their lifestyle, language and culture are different and the state must recognize and honor this difference. All Madheshi leaders, irrespective of the parties they belong to, have this sentiment. Recall Madhesh Movement. Why did it happen? Today, Madheshis fear that achievements of Madhesh Movement are being hijacked by mainstream parties. Leaders in the frontline of negotiations must work to mitigate this fear.

But that clearly isn't happening, is it?

This weakening of rivals to establish one's agenda might serve the interests of some parties for some time. But this is going to harm them ultimately. Only three forces will gain from the ongoing tussle between the parties in the CA: The regressive forces which are opposed to all changes and gains of People's Movement and Madhesh Movement; the extremist forces which do not believe in promulgating the statute through the CA and see the armed revolt as the only option to achieve the political goals; and the separatist force which sees no future in Nepali state and is demanding a separate state. These forces will become more assertive if parties in the CA keep deferring constitution.

It is said no party, including Madheshi forces, is committed to federalism.

Federalism seems to have become a pain in the neck of all. As you see, there is a gap in understanding over naming and delineating state boundaries. Take the recent case of expanding service centers in Rautahat and Bara. Expanding service center is a good idea but it fuelled riots. Imagine the situation when we create states. We will have to redraw the boundaries of the country, relocate administrative units, local institutions and other entities. Bara and Rautahat incidents are indications of how hard it will be to institutionalize federalism. Conflicts are sure to happen, even if two Madhesh states are created. There is likely to be altercations over where to locate state capitals.

What in your view should be done to settle federalism?

Political leadership alone cannot settle this. Now the leaders are acting like defendants and plaintiffs in a court. First they must develop basic understanding of fundamentals. Once they do, they should detach themselves from the process and assign a team of experts to resolve the issue. Federalism is complicated. Only an independent team of technocrats might be able to sort it out.

It seems the parties are deferring state restructuring because of the same complexity.

May be. Those advocates of federalism have sold several dreams. But they are not in a position to honor those promises. When federalism fails, they will also be held to account. Thus the mood among leaders seems to be 'since federalism dream is not going to come true, why not defer it?' There are others who accept federalism of compulsion. They may be thinking of deferring it to the point when the agenda fizzles out. These intentions manifest in some corners of the political platform. But whatever the complexities, promulgating the statute by putting federalism on hold will be impossible. Even if such constitution comes, it won't endure.

There seems to be less acrimony following withdrawal of three-day protest by the opposition alliance. Is there a hope of reconciliation?

All parties feel the urgency. They seem to realize that absence of constitution is stalling development. Thus there is a level of pressure on the leaders. Parties have us believe that things will be all right once we have the constitution. International community seems to think along the same lines. Political parties have realized that if they delay the statute they will be at a disadvantage. They seem to have realized that they are all in the same sinking boat. This is why the parties may have stopped the blame game. This is positive. But, again, I feel that despite the thaw, differences have not narrowed, whatever the leaders say. They are still poles apart on core issues.

Dispute remains as to whether to adopt mixed or fully proportionate representation election model. What do you suggest?

It all depends on the country and the context. We are a nation in conflict and political exclusion is one of its causes. Cost of election is increasing and only the rich and mighty can contest and win polls. In this context, we should adopt fully proportionate representation model. This would ensure local representation, connect people with leaders, reduce election cost and also dirty maneuvering. Of course, we will lose out on certain benefits of the first-past-the-post system. But this is the time to unite the nation, ensure political inclusion and minimize conflicts. We need PR system for this. But since parties won't agree to this, it seems there is no alternative to a mixed system for now.

But PR system has given us extremely large CA. It has also made decision making slow.

There are no completely good or bad systems. Much depends on the drivers of the system. The best leadership handles the situation well despite odds; the worst spoils everything whether it is under PR or FPTP system. Our problem is bad drivers. There are countries that have adopted fully PR model for centuries and yet done wonderful. Take Nordic countries. It is about 300 years since they have had fully PR system in place.

Nepali youths are pessimistic about politics. Is our situation as bad as is generally believed?

I have seen worse conflicts in Sudan, Myanmar and even in Bangladesh. People seem to be frustrated with politics everywhere, even in developed countries. There are developed countries that consider 40 percent voting as electoral success. Ours is close to 70 percent voting. We are better in this aspect. Look at Bangladesh. It is rare for the ruling and opposition leaders to engage in face to face dialogue there. Our leaders fight but they meet next moment, share the same table and discuss things amicably. This is what is positive about Nepali leaders. Compared to the three countries, ours is not a very serious case. In most countries, conflict is purely ethnic. Ours is not so. But we must address ethnic aspirations now. Otherwise, this could breed future conflict.