Murari Sharma: Uncertain British Elections

Democracies go through the election ritual every few years. That ritual is due on 7 May 2015 for the United Kingdom. This election is going to be one of the closest in British history.

The main competitors are the Conservative Party, which is leading the present coalition government, and the Labor Party, which ruled from 1994 to 2010. The Liberal Democratic Party, the minor coalition partner in the current administration, and the UK Independent Party will also be forces to reckon with. Then you have the Green Party and several regional parties joining the fray.

This election is Prime Minister David Cameron’s to lose. The Labor Party has been facing several obstacles to make a comeback from the corner. The ruling coalition has successfully blamed Labor for the Great Recession of 2007-08. It has had its fair share of scandals in terms of dodgy donors or insulting the voters. On top of that, Labor Leader Ed Miliband is personally deemed as unlikable.

In addition, the Conservatives  have also been favored by other factors. They have successfully claimed the credit for the economic recovery in the last couple of years. Voters trust them for the economy and immigration more than Labor, even though the economy had nowhere else to go but up after hitting the bottom  and the government could not fulfill its pledge to reduce the number of immigrants from hundreds of thousands to thousands.

Even though the British government had little to do with the recession or has done little for the recovery, the Tories have been able to outmaneuver Labor in public relations campaign. In politics, it does not matter what and who is right; what matters is what appears right to the voters.

But the battle is not just between these two parties. Both have been threatened  by the fringe parties. UKIP presents a serious threat in the marginals to the Tories, and the Scottish National Party and the Green Party to Labor. All recent opinion polls have suggested that neither the Conservatives nor the Labor would win outright majority in the parliament.

Therefore, in all likelihood, the next government will again be a coalition government, just like the current one. While this coalition has not been detrimental to the Conservatives, it has seriously damaged the LibDem, the junior partner. The Conservatives have taken credit of the populist  agenda of LibDem and apportioned the share of their unpopular decisions.

The only way Ed Miliband could occupy 10 Downing Street would, most likely, be through a coalition with the Scottish National Party or by obtaining its support from outside. SNP, which had last year conducted a referendum for Scotland’s independence only to lose by a relatively small margin, is widely believed that it would take most of the 40 seats held by Labor now in Scotland.

Fearing that any coalition with the pro-independence SNP could damage Labor’s electoral prospects in England and the SNP could be too demanding, Labor leader Miliband has ruled out such a coalition with it. This strengthens the hand of Prime Minister Cameron and his party.

Since this election has no defining issue on either side, it will have to be fought on personality of the leaders, on vilifying the other side, and winning people through smart public relations campaign. The Conservative Party and Labor Party do not have much difference in their core agenda.

Both have committed to reduce and pay down national debt, cut benefit, and increase minimum wage. Both have said they would ring-fence the NHS budget and add more to tackle its ongoing problems and prevent further closure of hospitals. The only difference is Labor wants to go slow on reducing debt and cutting benefits.

What complicates the election further is that both Cameron and Miliband have image problem. Cameron’s right flank criticizes him for not cutting benefits and taxes enough and not clearly committing to pull Britain out of the European Union. His left flank believes he and his Chancellor of Exchequer are out of touch with reality and voters. Miliband is in a similar position. His left flank has been criticizing him for not being red enough and his right flank for not being pro-business enough.

So, in this situation, every vote will count, every opportunity to undermine the other party will matter, and every possibility to show the disadvantages of the other side will help. Analysts say, this election will be the closest in a long time. In this down-to-the-wire campaign, television debates have become a new front for jockeying.

Cameron has refused to have a face to face television debate with Miliband. He fears that, given low expectations from Miliband, a modest performance from the Labor leader could upstage him. After much dithering, he has agreed to a TV debate among seven parties, in which every leader will have very little time to present their position and no time to grill the other leaders, and indirect question-answer session with Miliband.

While the debates might not change the voters’ mind tectonically, they might make a big difference in a neck-to-neck competition. A shift in a few hundred votes could make one a winner or loser. The seven-party debate could help or harm Cameron and Miliband depending on what other parties will do.

If UKIP leader Nigel Farage shows a soft corner for him, Cameron could be the winner in this multilateral debate. If SNP leader Alex Salmond and Green leader Natalie Bennett treat Miliband with kids gloves, the Labor leader could emerge victorious.

Because there is so much uncertainty, this election has become one of the most eagerly awaited in history. Only on 8 May will we know which party has been favored by the voters in the periodic ritual of election. Until then, we must wait with bated breath.


Murari Sharma: Follow Circadian Rhythm

After more than one-and-half month’s breakdown in dialogue over the new constitution, the ruling coalition and the opposition front in Nepal have agreed to meet again. Whatever the reason — India’s advice to Babu Ram Bhattarai during his recent Delhi visit, the fear of each other between the ruling and opposition parties, or Prime Minister Sushil Koirla’s entreaties — the opposition headed by Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal has come back to the table.

In the first resumed talk, both sides reiterated their divergent positions again, indicating that, at least initially, they have no intention to sort out their differences. I hope that it will change for mutual accommodation.

Differences persist mainly on the four issues, which threw a wrench in the works of the first Constituent Assembly. They could do the same in this second assembly.

The ruling coalition wants direct elections, parliamentary form of government, independent judiciary, and multi-identity states. In contrast, the opposition front is fighting for the presidential system, constitutional court and politically controlled judiciary, largely proportional system of representation, and ethnic states.

Neither side is entirely right or wrong. The ruling coalition’s preference for 100 percent direct election for the lower house and proportional representation for the upper, is good for competitive, meritorious politics, but it is not inclusive. The opposition demand for 50 percent proportional representation in both houses will stifle merit. The mid-point between the two could be a good compromise.

I understand the desire of the front to install the presidential form of government for greater stability in view of the frequent changes in government in the past, in view that the Westminster system has been inherently unstable in Nepal. However, the opposition has failed to allay the fear that a powerful executive elected for certain years, who cannot be removed from office without onerous impeachment, could become a permanent dictator, as has been the case in many countries.

I would rather prefer living in political instability than in dictatorship.

The opposition’s argument in favor of establishing a constitutional court to address the issues arising from federalism may have some merit. Nevertheless, its disadvantages in terms of its political nature and encroachment in the Supreme Court’s remit outweigh its merit. The opposition’s effort to keep the judiciary as a whole under political control goes against the basic tenet of democracy.

Finally, the most contentious issue has been the federal states. Prima facie, the front’s demand for single-ethnic states to empower the minorities sounds plausible. Actually, ethnic leaders will benefit from power from this. However, this arrangement will create two problems. First, most minority states will be too small to enjoy the economies of scale and will have no resources to foster growth, create jobs and deliver improved standards of living necessary for the empowerment of people in general.

Second, the new minorities in these states will demand their own identity, making these states conflict-ridden and unstable. Take for instance, Udayapur, Jhapa, and Ilam. Under the front’s proposal, Udayapur will be part of Khambuan, but it has Chhetri majority; Jhapa will come under Madhesh, but it has Pahadi majority; Ilam will be under Limbuwan, but it has Rai majority. The Chhetris, Pahadis and Rais, respectively, will seek their own identity in the newly minted ethnic states. You have a similar situation in more than 60 districts out of 75.

Therefore, the ruling coalition’s multi-ethnic states are a better option than the opposition’s single-ethnic states. It should be accompanied by targeted programs to provide equal opportunity to empower disadvantaged communities and groups.

While advancing their proposals, both the ruling coalition and the opposition front have claimed that they have people’s mandate. But the evidence proves that neither stands on solid ground for several reasons. First, in a recent survey carried out by Tribhuvan University among 98 ethnic groups, hardly 20 percent people were found aware of federalism and proportional representation. It means the leaders on both sides have been representing, well, themselves, not their voters.

Second, democracy is majority rule where minority rights should be respected. In the first CA, the current opposition had the number on their side. In this CA, the Nepali Congress and the CPN (UML) enjoy nearly the two-third majority. In a democratic system, who has the number on its side ultimately controls the agenda and validly claims public support.

Third, the opposition’s demand that everything must be driven by the 12-point agreement and other old accords may sound plausible in its face, but it is also fraught with several problems. For one, both sides have flouted them already. More importantly, nearly 10 million people voted in the 2013 elections, whereas the Maoist insurgency was waged by 7,000 guerillas. This makes clear which a more legitimate mandate is.

Fourth, the opposition front’s protest meeting of 28 February 2015 in Kathmandu proved that it does not have much public backing. The 30-party-strong front bragged about fielding 200,000 people (out of 27 million population) in the meeting, sent its leaders to various district to bring people in, and bussed in thousands of them from all over the country. But the front could hardly gather 30,000 people, a damp squib.

Despite all this, the ruling coalition should understand that the opposition front, even if it is small, could spoil the party. The opposition should understand that the ruling coalition has the two-thirds majority to approve and promulgate the new constitution, as stipulated in the Interim Constitution.

Therefore, the best way forward is this: Both sides ought to show maximum flexibility — of course, within the democratic norms and values — to make the best use of the new window of opportunity opened by the newly resumed dialogue. They should agree on whatever they can and go for the voting process on the rest. Some major issues could also be decided by a referendum.

This is not the time for protests, as Madhav Nepal, who helped the Maoists come out of jungle, has said. So both sides should work on the understanding that the new constitution will be no Bible or Quran. The two-thirds majority can amend it whenever the circadian rhythm of election cycle and public mood makes such majority possible.