Friday, April 30, 2010

Change in the air

The Introdcution of television debate has ended the dreariness of the British elections
John Narayan Parajuli
Following the first television debate on April 15 between the leaders of the top three parties in British politics, the campaigning for elections to be held on May 6 have certainly come to life. The appearance of Nick Clegg, the leader of the third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, is creating new excitement in electioneering. Overnight, Clegg became media’s darling. Many have begun to draw parallels with Obama’s campaign. Previously shunned by the media as a straggler, Clegg’s party has shown a meteoric rise in the polls following the two debates — now standing in the second position ahead of Labour.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown had tried to woo him during the first debate with copious amount of “I agree with Nick” or “Nick agrees with me” refrain — which had backfired — rather personally for Brown. Clegg has now suggested Brown’s head as a precondition for a Lib-Lab pact in the event of a hung parliament with Labour in the lead.

Lib Dems are emboldened by the prospect of a kingmakers’ role. Most polls have shown the possibility of a hung parliament. On three previous occasions Britain had a hung parliament, the last one in 1974, there was a mid-term election within a year. Though the big parties are dreading the prospect, the Lib Dems are relishing it.

Defining moment

This is a defining moment in the British politics — against the backdrop of financial crisis that threatens to unravel the welfare state, burgeoning public deficit that has put UK in the ranks of Greece, Spain and Ireland, and MPs expenses scandal that tarnished the image of every politician. The gap between what the British government raises in taxes and its spending stood at £163.4 billion for the last financial year. The Conservatives favour a radical reduction in public expenses to reduce the deficit, but they have refused to support Labour’s proposal to raise the national insurance contribution calling it a “tax on jobs.” Then there is the issue of politicians’ own finances. A number of MPs from all parties have wrongfully claimed expenses for a whole host of items.

The MPs expense scandal has brought the parliament into disrepute. Many fear a lower turnout this year given the high level of cynicism among the British public. All these have made the job of politicians harder. David Cameroon, the leader of the Conservative party, has failed to exploit the anti-incumbency factor so far. Though polls have shown that the Tories would emerge as the largest party, but the ground could very well shift by May 6 as number of swing voters continue to swell.

Brown faces even tougher challenge. He has seen already three ‘coup’ attempts to dethrone him from the top job from within his party — since he took over from Blair in 2007. Outside his party, he is blamed largely for letting the financial sector run wild during his stint as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. And now with the introduction of American-style television debates, Brown’s fate looks even more precarious. Even Labour strategists admit Brown is not cut out for a television debate. He looks old (and he is), worn out and out of fresh ideas. Sensing his disadvantage, Brown expressed his frustration in no uncertain terms during opening for the second debate. “If it is all about style and PR, count me out. If it is about the big decisions, if it is about delivering a better future for this country — I am your man.”

The debate

Immigration and economy are the two most debated issues in this election. On economy, Labour and Lib Dems appear to be leading in the polls, but the Conservatives seem to be carrying the public on the immigration. The conservatives have proposed a cap system that will limit the number of immigrants in each category. The Lib Dems, though they oppose a cap system, have equally drastic proposal to check the rising immigration. They want to limit the mobility of the immigrants by tying them down to a particular area. They want to introduce a regional clause to the point-based system. Under the proposal immigrants with a particular region stamped on their visas won’t be able to move to another region of UK and take jobs. The Labour concedes that the immigration system needs to be tightened, but it remains iffy about bringing more drastic measures like two other parties.

On the issue of economy, the Lib Dems favour a tax on banks and breaking up of the financial sector to prevent them from taking excessive risk and stopping the recurrence of the ‘too big to fail’ government bailouts. They also want to repeal taxes on low and middle earners, in addition to getting rid of the Trident, the submarine-based nuclear deterrence system. On the other hand, the Conservatives are pushing for a restructuring of the ‘broken’ British society and change the ways public services are delivered. They want to give more ‘power’ to the people in running schools, hospitals and police stations. And there is the issue of electoral reform including changes to the House of Lords. Labour, because of its policies or lack thereof, appears to favour the status quo on most issues.

British parliamentary elections are a dull affair by most measures, but advent of television debates have given a crucial opening to Clegg and his party to punch above their weight and present a viable alternative to two major parties. As Jeremy Paxman, the irreverent host of BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight challenged Nick Clegg during an interview recently, there is little prospect of Lib Dems leading a new government: “Let’s first of all establish which planet you are on, you are not going to sit there, are you, and claim that you could be the next prime minister?,” Paxman told Clegg.

The debate is more than just a personality contest. There is a yearning for change in Britain. But the issues are muddled in rhetoric, party labels and political mathematics for public finances that do not add up.

There is an echo of Obama’s campaign of hope and change in all three parties’ electioneering, however only Clegg appears to have his leg up at the moment as a relative outsider. Labour can’t be seen as an agent of change after being in power for 13 years, the Conservatives appear rather oxymoronic when ‘change’ is put next to the party name — plus the privileged background of some of its leaders isn’t helping the way they are perceived. That leaves Clegg. But even for him, the prospect of matching Obama’s success or chances of becoming the next prime minister is pretty slim. And unlike Obama, as one commentator put it, ‘Clegg is not the messiah; he’s just a pretty boy.’

(Parajuli is doing his Masters in War and Conflict Reporting in Swansea University, Wales)

Friday, April 9, 2010

UN bodies should stay

UN bodies' untimely exit will make the peace process more susceptible to manipulation and will increase China and India's opaque influence

At a time when the crisis of confidence between the parties in the peace process has taken a serious blow, not least due to the demise of Girija Prasad Koirala and by the intentional ratcheting up the conflict on many fronts, the term of two UN bodies is coming to an end. The mandates of the UN’s political mission, UNMIN, and the UN’s human rights agency, OHCHR, expire on May 15 and June 9 respectively. Whatever the argument against them may be, the argument for their continuing presence is compelling for one simple reason: if nothing else, they provide a framework for a veneer of trust and confidence for both sides (the Maoists and the state) to operate. Despite the Maoists’ rhetoric and even threats to return to violence, they know that they cannot do so without massive provocation. Even on the side of the state, the army is equally beholden to its commitment, however reluctant it may seem to fulfil its end of the bargain. The presence of UNMIN, symbolic as it may be, is a guarantee against incidents like the Doromba massacre from ever recurring. At least, that is the idea.

Both sides have plenty to dislike about UNMIN and OHCHR, primarily because they perform a thankless job and are not doing either party’s bidding. So when UNMIN stuck to the letter and spirit of the Agreement on Monitoring and Management of Arms and Armies (AMMAA) and refused to divulge details about combatants (something that was in the Maoists’ favour by default), the government and its media operatives began a smear campaign. Now the government is even trying to terminate their mandate that is up for renewal

Nitpicky neighbours

There is more to the government’s reluctance than just the disenchantment of the ruling coalition. Nepal’s two giant neighbours are railing against it. China fears both UN bodies will make a foray into its underbelly, the Tibetan issue. India also has qualms about UNMIN limiting its role, and fears that the intention of OHCHR Nepal office to ‘oversee’ South Asia will bring in unnecessary meddling into its own rights issues — causing embarrassment on the international stage — especially its right record will be up for Universal Periodic Review in 2012. Both neighbours who claim to look out for Nepal’s best interest seem willing to push Nepal up against the wall when their own perceived interests are at stake. If India wants to play a role commensurate with its influence in Nepal’s peace process, why is it then shying away from declaring it formally? Why hasn’t New Delhi even appointed a special envoy? Why has it been left to unaccountable intelligence operatives and bureaucrats?

New Delhi needs to come clean on what it wants. It is unbecoming for a big democratic power like India to continue to conduct its affairs in stealth and secrecy in the neighbourhood. What makes Nepalis suspicious of India is the clandestine nature with which it exercises its influence in Nepal. This is not to disparage the importance of India to Nepal: It has been an ardent supporter of our democratic aspirations and millions of Nepalis eke out a living from jobs throughout India. But its good deeds are overshadowed by its reliance on shadowy intelligence figures and clumsy and piecemeal handling of crisis in Nepal. That’s where they differ from the Chinese.

If India wants to play a role in Nepal in proportion to its influence and new found global position, it needs to shed the colonial hangover of its bureaucracy and exercise its influence at the level of its political leadership. It should also have the courage to wield its influence formally and transparently. That’s a decision India has to make.

But Nepal government’s reluctance to extend the stay of UNMIN and OHCHR is self-defeating and myopic. If the government can’t resist neighbourly pressure now on issues that are important for the country, it will have to forever cave into that kind of hounding. It will set a precedent that future governments will find hard to overcome. It is vital that both UNMIN and OHCHR stay until the peace process is completed and a semblance of normalcy returns. The idea that UNMIN should pack its bags the day the issue of army integration is resolved is rash and inconsiderate of the contingencies that are a normal part of any peace process. The idea that the peace process would somehow lend itself to a speedy conclusion is too optimistic to be true. The progress so far is indicative that assumptions about quick resolutions are unrealistic. As for the fate of OHCHR, lobbying from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has partly played out against its extension. Office bearers in the NHRC are getting unnecessarily territorial. All the efforts the NHRC has made so far suggests that it is a work-in-progress, at best.

Smear campaign?

A section of UML-leaning intelligentsia has been trying to mitigate blame of the government by misdirecting it on UN bodies (the shortcomings of the UN agencies is topic for another discussion). First the diarrheal epidemic in Jajarkot was blamed on bad rice delivered by the WFP; the NHRC and INSEC’s grudge against OHCHR has been building up for quite some time; and now the gun has been trained on UNMIN for its ‘pro-Maoist bias.’ It hardly seems to be a coincidence that these allegations are coming mostly from those affiliated to UML in some way. It also seems rather convenient that it all started with the formation of the Madhav Nepal-led government.

Like Afghan President Hamid Karzai blaming the UN and the European Commission for orchestrating the electoral fraud in last August’s presidential elections in Afghanistan, these allegations in Nepal also have a familiar ring to them — they are survival tricks of a desperate government propped up by the self-serving political elite. One can only hope that the situation won’t deteriorate further. The only deterrene that stands between the current situation and full scale escalation of conflict is the presence UN bodies and the international community. It is also the only deterrence that stands in the way of more opaque and hence unaccountable involvement of the neighbours. Those who point to the UN’s failure elsewhere as an argument for UNMIN’s early exit would do well to remember that it is ultimately up to the political leadership in Nepal and that the UN’s presence in itself is no guarantee of success. The least it does is assure that the trust gap between the parties would not lead to renewal of large scale violence.

But it is also the responsibility of the international community not to be discouraged by partisan quarreling or sucked into it — and to make sure that the UN’s political presence continues uninterrupted in Nepal as long as the peace process isn’t complete.