By Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal
Nepali version of this article appeared in yesterday’s Kantipur (Koseli) [Pics by Pratikshya Sodari. Last three by D Wagle]
Apart from observing the CA election, Sushma KC, 21, is eager to vote for the first time. “I am very much excited. I was 11 in the last election. Now I have the right (to cast vote) and I want to use that.”
In this election season ‘busyness’ is not limited inside the central office of the Election Commission in Kantipath. Hariram Poudel and Krishna Subedi were fully engaged in a chocked up room of a small house in front of that familiar big building across the Kantipath street
Hari was putting stamps on papers one after another. Krishna was hastily collecting them. Among the three pieces of the papers stitched together were an identification card along with a photo, a copy of the card owner’s citizenship certificate, and a page of text of oath that the person must take before carrying the ID card. The work was tedious as a single card had to be stamped seven times. But there were no few cards. The duo that prepared five hundred cards that day had readied 8,200 cards in total in the past several days. Come April 10, the cardholders will go to many voting booths and observe the polling process of the Constitution Assembly elections. They are the election observers approved by the Election Commission. According to the Commission’s Election Observation Resource Center there will be about forty thousands of them deployed for this election.
A group of young boys and girls: first time voters and election observers
One of them is Sushma KC. Apart from observing, she is eager to vote for the first time. “I am very much excited,” said the 21-year-old who was taking part in a training program about election observation in a school in Kalikasthan last Saturday (29 March). “I was 11 in the last election. Now I have the right (to cast vote) and I want to use that.” There are 38, 54,388 youth like Sushma registered at the Commission who are below 25, were illegible to vote in the last election, and are very much eager to use their right this time. Many of the EC-approved observers for this election are from that age group, according to initial estimates of the observing agencies. It will be a historic opportunity for these first time voters to have a close and first hand look at the unprecedented democratic exercise as observers.
“I wanted to observe closely how an election is conducted,” said Sushma while an instructor was explaining observer’s duties in the training session in which around one hundred ID card holders like Sushma participated. “You can learn many things,” added the young voter who is registered at Kaski constituency number 3 and will observe the voting process there.
Like Sushma 23-year-old Dinesh Khanal who is registered to vote at Dhading-3 wants to observe the voting process in his own constituency. “I want to go to my own constituency,” he said. “If you go to another, you can’t vote for First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system. What’s the use of fully volunteering if you can’t vote?”
[According to the EC the observers who are not registered at the constituency that they are assigned to observe can’t cast their vote for the proportional voting system as well, a fact that Dinesh came to know by the end of the training session.]
Padam Bahadur Sunuwar wants to observe voting process in Rolpa
While Dinesh was talking about voting and volunteering, Krishna Pokharel, a scholar, was on the microphone sharing his wisdom about the CA election. “The CA election is unprecedented,” he said. “We are a lucky generation who are participating in this.”
“How can you stay without voting in such a time?” asked Dinesh responding to the cue from Pokharel.
“Which is important to you: voting or observing?” I asked.
“Vote,” he said.
“No, observing,” said Sita Dhungana who was seated next to Dinesh. 21-year-old Sita is an observer as well as a first-time voter. She was there to take part in the training. “It’s rare that one wins or loses because of one vote,” she said. “You can contribute more to the electoral process by observing than by voting.”
These youth will face a contradiction along with the experience of first-vote and first-observation. One can vote for only one election symbol in a ballot paper. You must take a side which doesn’t reconcile with the basic principle of observation- never take a side. A voter naturally wants that party/candidate to win for whom s/he has voted. But the observer must not expect victory of one side and the defeat of the other. How do you balance that?
“Every human being has certain convictions, pre-defined belief,” replied Sita. “There is no neutrality while voting. But there is while observing.”
That is something that entirely depends on a person’s morality. But the duty of an observer is not to get involved in electoral process but to observe it from a corner. They can’t influence a voter or take a side aiming to benefit a certain party.
Sudarshan Khanal has understood that. This 26-year-old who is registered to vote in Nuwakot-1 constituency plans to observe the election in a different booth after casting the first ever vote of his life.
“They have told us not to tell anyone to vote for this party or that candidate,” Sudarshan recalled the instructions. “Our job is to see if the booth officer has signed the ballot papers, if he is taking sides and if political parties are rigging the elections.”
Yes, an observer’s job is to quietly see if parties are rigging the election. Their job, however, is not to stop the rigging. Largest ever team of national and international observers will closely watch this historic election in which largest ever voter turnout is expected. (About eight hundred foreign observers and 17.6 million voters are registered with the Election Commission for the CA polls). Even if they couldn’t stop the rigging directly, observers hope, their mere presence will discourage polling frauds.
Carter’s Special Forces (from left): Roger Bryant, Darren Nance and Dejan Danilovic
One of such hopeful observers is Darren Nance who is in Nepal for the past 14 months to observe the electoral process. He is the Field Director of American peace organization The Carter Center that was invited by the government of Nepal, some political parties and the Election Commission to observe the CA polls. From the Center’s office in Hattisar, Kathmandu, Darren coordinates the observers who have been brought to Nepal from abroad and are mobilized to different parts of the country by the organization established by former American President Jimmy Carter.
“[The observers’ presence] helps to create a level of confidence among the competitors,” said Darren, “and plays a role to make sure that the game is played by the rule.” Apart from making the electoral process credible Darren thinks that the observer’s presence “helps to build confidence of voters to get out and vote.” “It helps to serve as deterrent for any kind of fraudulent or malice activities,” he said. “Not Maoist but malice activities!”
The Carter Center that is active in Nepal’s peace process since 2003 started mobilizing 13 long term election observers since the first week of March last year. The Center’s Nepal stay has lengthened because of the postponement of elections scheduled, first, in June and then in November last year. “Yea!” Darren responded to one of my humorous statements. “I think we have the longest international election observation mission. I need to look at the record out there. May be Guinness Book of World Records.”
An ANFREL staff
Like some of the Nepali organizations that are competing among themselves to mobilize the observers after receiving foreign funds, not all foreign observers could be considered good. Some might be having fun in the name of observing with the money that is supposed to come for Nepali people. But more crucial than anything like that is that the presence of monitoring organizations like the Center has put the Nepali elections in the attention of international community. That, in turn, hasn’t let disappear the world community’s interest in our democracy and peace process.
Center has sent its long term observers to all districts and interacted with various stakeholders of the electoral process. Such missions become memorable to the observers. “We have had many unforgettable experiences and encounters,” writes Stefanie Gross, who started the observation 14 months ago based on Biratnagar, on the Center’s web site.
“In these last six months working as a Long Term Observer in Nepal, I have trekked some 600 miles,” writes Jason Katz. “And my team likely broke the world record for highest electoral observation work at an altitude of 5,500 meters, with Mt. Everest towering above us. In fact, President Carter traveled to the exact same location in 1985, as we later discovered, so perhaps we can share the credit.” Apart from claiming to set record, ‘Carter’s soldier’ has mentioned about learning some words from Magar language, about ethnic Magars roaring into laughter hearing his comments about them and curious Maoist cadres coming to his bed to start conversation.
“Americans such as myself have not exactly been favored by the Maoists for many reasons,” writes Jason. “However, their suspicions of us being spies soon dissipated as we explained what we were doing and provided them with credentials and letters of invitation from different political parties, including the Maoist leadership. We later arranged to continue the meeting [from the bed] in a more formal setting with additional party members at their office.”
Those who don’t ‘suspect’, on the other hand, have more expectations from the observers. For example, Center’s British Long Term Observer Roger Bryant said, “Many [villagers] told us to play a role in organizing free and fair elections. We told them ‘our role is only to observe the electoral process, we can’t help, participate or get involved in it’.”
Roger who came to Nepal eight months ago said that though it was a bit difficult to go around trekking in remote places like Khotang at the old age it was fun doing so. “It’s very easy to start conversations with Nepali people,” said Bryant who has traveled to 16 districts of the eastern Nepal. “After climbing a steep hill, stop in a local tea shop. That would gather crowd then. You start the talking about general things and gradually go into election issues. They start giving their opinions about elections. Sit and talk with farmers, you hear their worries.”
Hari with an ID card
Dejan Danilovic, a Long Term Observer from Bosnia and Herzegovina who came to Nepal three months ago, he found it easier to understand the situation as he came from a country that faced almost similar problem faced by Nepal. “When you talk to the general public you realize how desperately they want peace,” said Dejan. “The context of election becomes even clearer after listening to them.”
While foreigners are busy observing electoral process as well as chatting with general public and climbing steep hills of remote places young men like 20-year-old Padam Bahadur Sunuwar of Sisneri, Okhaldhunga are also readying themselves to observe the democratic exercise in the district different from their own. The BA 3rd year student at Patan Multiple Campus wants to go to Rolpa (from where the Maoist ‘peoples’ war’ began in 1996) to observe the elections. “You can visit and see new places,” he said about observing elections. “If not in Rolpa, I will go to the easier place.”
That place, certainly, is Sisneri where he is registered to vote. “I think I should vote anyhow,” said the young man who described himself as a person with not much interest in politics. “I want to vote.” Padam’s friend who was seated next to him (but wasn’t an observer and had gone there accompanying Padam) added: “It’s not about wanting to vote. It’s the right.”
“Yes, it’s the right,” said Padam and added that he was more concerned about the success of the CA than victory of a certain political party. “Whoever wins should write a good constitution,” he said. “They say they will do this and that but they should turn their words into actions.”
These youths who are being mobilized by one of the 56 organizations that are collectively observing the election under the banner of ‘Constituent Assembly Election Observation Joint Forum (CAEOF)’ (itself one of the many networks that are approved by the EC to observe) will not be paid for their job because the CAEOF has decided not to take financial assistance from anyone and make observation a an act of volunteering. [The pair of Hari and Krishna who was preparing the identity cards of the observers in the offices of Election Observation Resource Center, a new office set up by the Election Commission with the help of UNDP, is also associated with the CAEOF.]
Hari (right) and Krishna preparing the ID cards for election observers.
That doesn’t mean observation is strictly volunteering for all. For some organizations this has become an unprecedented opportunity to play with and earn money. This talent of some Nepalis must be ‘valued’ for by using that they have become masters who turn any event into an opportunity of earning! But why complain if the aim is to learn about the electoral process rather than to earn from observing it?
“I have no complains even if they don’t pay,” said Sushma. “There is plenty of time to earn money, I will earn later. I want to see how the election happens. That is indeed a very big deal for me.”