How much influence will independents and minor parties have this election? Please explain


Chris Salisbury, The University of Queensland

For some time now, Australian voters have rattled the cage of the political establishment. Frustrated with prime ministerial “coups”, political scandals and policy inertia, growing numbers have turned away from the major parties.

Does this mean minor parties and independent candidates will have a significant impact on the coming federal election?

Anti-major party sentiment doesn’t usually disrupt the numbers in parliament by much. Only five of 150 seats weren’t won by the major parties at the 2016 federal election, despite a national minor party/independent vote of over 23%. But a nationwide minor party Senate vote of over 35% in 2016 resulted in a record 20 crossbenchers – helped by a lower quota bar at a double dissolution election.

Familiar groups and faces are well placed to capitalise on this sentiment during the current election campaign.




Read more:
A matter of (mis)trust: why this election is posing problems for the media


Chasing the protest vote

Despite internal instability rocking its New South Wales branch, the Greens will hope to capitalise on growing progressive support (in Victoria especially) and an expected anti-Coalition swing to secure Senate influence.

Yet with recent Senate voting rule changes being tested for the first time at a normal half-Senate election, the Greens may in fact struggle to retain, let alone build on, their current nine Senate spots. Final Senate seats in most states will be fought over by a slew of (mainly right-wing) minor parties.

Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP), Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON), and – unlikely as it seems – Fraser Anning’s new Conservative National Party will chase the “protest vote” in all states and (apart from PHON) territories.

But intense competition for the conservative vote means they and other minor parties stand only an outside chance of winning lower house seats. One exception is Bob Katter likely holding Kennedy in north Queensland for his eponymous Australian Party.

Still, an expected high minor party vote will keep the major parties – and the media – focused on preferencing arrangements throughout the campaign. These preferences will likely play a key role in electing minor party candidates to the Senate, potentially returning familiar faces like One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts from Queensland.

Deference to preferences

Recent opinion poll results have unexpectedly placed Palmer’s party ahead of the field of minor parties on the right. Months of saturation advertising, it seems, have imprinted the billionaire’s messaging on voters’ minds. Yet this sudden poll prominence, like Palmer’s billboard pledge to “make Australia great”, is largely illusory.

Nevertheless, both major parties have responded to this seeming upsurge in UAP support. The Coalition has hurriedly concluded a preferencing arrangement that sees Palmer and Prime Minister Scott Morrison somewhat “reconciled”. The deal might deliver much-needed preferences to Coalition MPs in marginal seats, particularly in Queensland. It also increases the chances of Palmer candidates – and the man himself – winning a Senate seat.

But these are big “maybes”. Minor party voters are renowned for following their own preference choices. In 2013, voters’ preferences from Palmer’s United Party candidates split only 54% the Coalition’s way.

Clearly stung by the attention being shown to Palmer, Hanson has announced PHON will preference Labor last in some key marginal seats held by Liberal incumbents. That includes Peter Dutton, whose seat of Dickson is under siege. In 2016, PHON took a different approach when it preferenced against sitting MPs, costing the Coalition its hold on Queensland seats like Herbert and Longman.

As part of the same deal, PHON will exchange preferences with the Nationals – whose leader Michael McCormack claimed “it just made sense” – lifting the Nationals’ hopes in marginal and at-risk regional seats.

Labor has also sealed a deal to boost its chances in marginal Victorian seats, concluding an arrangement with Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party. This will see Labor how-to-vote cards in tightly contested seats like Dunkley and Corangamite suggest second preferences go to Hinch’s Senate candidates ahead of the Greens (repeating Labor’s approach at the 2016 election).




Read more:
View from The Hill: Shorten had the content, Morrison had the energy in first debate


The reputational risks of preference deals

But doing preference deals with minor parties carries reputational risks, as former Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett has warned. As has often been the case with personality-driven outfits, choosing suitable or qualified candidates easily brings minor parties undone.

Anning’s party has already stumbled badly. A pair of candidates in Victoria and the ACT has been called into question, and a party supporter allegedly assaulted journalists in Sydney.

Hanson’s party, no stranger to this pitfall, is still hosing down the controversy of the Al Jazeera taped conversations with party insiders, which has likely cost the party some support. Freshly released video footage has now forced Queensland Senate candidate, Steve Dickson, to resign in disgrace, in another blow to the often shambolic party’s standing.

Palmer’s candidates are similarly coming under scrutiny with doubts raised over citizenship qualifications, putting legitimate doubts into voters’ minds just as pre-polling has commenced.

Familiarity is key for independents

The best chances for independents are in lower house seats, yet there’s been only a dozen elected to parliament in the last several decades. Those who’ve broken through in election campaigns, like Kerryn Phelps at last year’s Wentworth byelection, typically benefit when there’s some controversy or ill-feeling towards an incumbent or their party.

But in the absence of full-on media glare of a high-profile by-election contest, Phelps might struggle to hold her seat – assuming the angst of local voters over Malcolm Turnbull’s deposing has dissipated.

Personal profile and high media interest puts Zali Steggall in with a chance to unseat Tony Abbott in Warringah. Likewise, a well-organised local campaign structure such as “Voices for Indi” behind Cathy McGowan’s hopeful successor, Helen Haines, can make the difference – though transition of support from one independent to another isn’t assured.

Newcomers on the ballot paper generally find the odds against them. Candidates with an established record and voter recognition, such as Andrew Wilkie in Tasmania’s Clark (like the Greens’ Adam Bandt in Melbourne and Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie in South Australia’s Mayo), enjoy an easier path to reelection.

Similarly, Rob Oakeshott is given a good chance of winning the New South Wales seat of Cowper from retiring Nationals MP, Luke Hartsuyker. He carries strong name recognition from his time as Independent MP for the neighbouring seat of Lyne.

But recognition alone mightn’t be enough for Julia Banks, the former Liberal MP for Chisholm in Victoria who is now challenging in Greg Hunt’s seat of Flinders. Her decision to preference Labor’s candidate above Hunt might turn away potential support from Liberal-leaning voters, yet could put the seat within Labor’s grasp.




Read more:
More grey tsunami than youthquake: despite record youth enrolments, Australia’s voter base is ageing


Minors and independents cloud the outcome

The chances of an “independent tide” sweeping several seats this election is unlikely, in part due to the ability of major parties to drown out the competition. And counter to long speculation about the “march of the minors”, there could in fact be a reduced crossbench in both the lower house and Senate.

But voter dissatisfaction with the major parties persists, and minor party preferences are likely to play a critical role in many seats.

The prominence of minor parties will maintain an air of unpredictability for the remainder of the campaign, clouding an election outcome many saw not long ago as a foregone conclusion.The Conversation

Chris Salisbury, Research Associate, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘State actor’ makes cyber attack on Australian political parties



File 20190218 56204 18qp4dj.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
While the government has not identified the state actor, China is.
being blamed.
Shutterstock

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

“A sophisticated state actor” has hacked the networks of the major
political parties, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told Parliament.

Recently the Parliament House network was disrupted, and the intrusion
into the parties’ networks was discovered when this was being dealt
with.

While the government has not identified the “state actor”, the Chinese
are being blamed.

Morrison gave the reassurance that “there is no evidence of any
electoral interference. We have put in place a number of measures to
ensure the integrity of our electoral system”.

In his statement to the House Morrison said: “The Australian Cyber
Security Centre recently identified a malicious intrusion into the
Australian Parliament House computer network.

“During the course of this work, we also became aware that the
networks of some political parties – Liberal, Labor and the Nationals
– have also been affected.

“Our security agencies have detected this activity and acted
decisively to confront it. They are securing these systems and
protecting users”.

The Centre would provide any party or electoral body with technical help to deal with hacking, Morrison said.

“They have already briefed the Electoral Commissions and those
responsible for cyber security for all states and territories. They
have also worked with global anti-virus companies to ensure
Australia’s friends and allies have the capacity to detect this
malicious activity,” he said.

“The methods used by malicious actors are constantly evolving and this
incident reinforces yet again the importance of cyber security as a
fundamental part of everyone’s business.

“Public confidence in the integrity of our democratic processes is an
essential element of Australian sovereignty and governance,” he said.

“Our political system and our democracy remains strong, vibrant and is
protected. We stand united in the protection of our values and our
sovereignty”.

Bill Shorten said party political structures were perhaps more vulnerable than government institutions – and progressive parties particularly so.

“We have seen overseas that it is progressive parties that are more likely to be targeted by ultra-right wing organisations.

“Political parties are small organisations with only a few full-time staff, they collect, store and use large amounts of information about voters and communities. These institutions can be a soft target and our national approach to cyber security needs to pay more attention to non-government organisations,” Shorten said.

Although the authorities are pointing to a “state actor”, national cyber security adviser Alastair MacGibbon told a news conference: “We don’t know who is behind this, nor their intent.

“We, of course, will continue to work with our friends and colleagues, both here and overseas, to work out who is behind it and hopefully their intent”.

Asked what the hackers had got their hands on MacGibbon said: “We don’t know”.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Are the major parties on the nose and minors on the march? It’s not that simple


Nick Economou, Monash University

Three political parties – the ALP, the Liberal Party and the National Party – dominate Australian politics. This dominance is particularly noticeable in the electoral contests for parliamentary lower houses, especially where these involve single-member electoral districts and electors cast a preferential vote.

In general, the vast majority of Australians vote for the three main parties. The dominance of the three parties’ representatives in state and federal parliaments reflects this.

Occasionally, developments in the party system can challenge this major party dominance. In 1955, for instance, the Labor Party split and the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) was created. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Australian Democrats party emerged, declaring it intended to “keep the bastards honest”. And in 1998, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation burst on the scene.

Neither the DLP nor the Democrats ever succeeded in winning a seat in the House of Representatives. One Nation also failed to win a lower house seat in the national parliament, although it did win seats in the Queensland parliament in 1998.




Read more:
Liberals win South Australian election as Xenophon crushed, while Labor stuns the Greens in Batman


Here was prima facie evidence of the capacity of new parties to upset major party dominance over election outcomes. But this was to be overshadowed by another recurring theme – new parties quickly imploding due to weak organisation.

Within months, all the Queensland One Nation MPs left the party to form a new body (the City Country Alliance). At the next election, they all lost their seats.

Since then, other minor parties have similarly secured stunning lower house victories, only to be overwhelmed by internal instability.

Clive Palmer and his Palmer United Party secured a House of Representatives seat in 2013, after which the party fragmented.

In 2016, the Nick Xenophon Team’s (NXT) Rebekha Sharkie won the House of Representatives seat of Mayo. Fifteen months later, Xenophon resigned from the Senate to create yet another party (SA-Best) to participate in the recent South Australian state election. SA-Best appears to have failed in its bid to win a seat in the SA Legislative Assembly, and the rump of the NXT left behind in the Senate now has no leader and apparently no organisation.

Arguably the non-major party with the greatest impact in the party system is the Australian Greens. The party has secured House of Representatives seats on four occasions (a byelection win in Cunningham in 2002, and the seat of Melbourne in general elections in 2010, 2013 and 2016). This was matched by a significant increase in the number of seats held in the Senate, and by lower house success in state elections in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania (albeit under a proportional electoral system).

It is stating the obvious to note that these minor party successes are the result of swings in voting behaviour at the expense of the major political parties. The total national primary vote cast for the main parties has been in decline.

But this in itself is no guarantee of inevitable change in the representational share between the major and minor parties, especially in single-member district electoral systems.

The shift of voter support away from the major parties has been variable and spread over a large number of alternative minor parties. In the 2013 and 2016 federal elections, more than 50 organisations registered as parties with the Australian Electoral Commission. Few of these parties polled over 1% of the vote. Only a handful polled over the 4% threshold to qualify for public funding.

Primary vote trends in Australia.
Author supplied

Once again, only the Greens – and, in the 2016 election, the NXT – have been capable of amassing a sufficient primary vote in a particular seat to have a chance of winning lower house representation.

But as the Batman byelection reminds us, even a primary vote approaching 40% does not guarantee victory. Bland references to declining support for the major parties tend to obscure just how difficult it is for minor parties to win lower house seats, especially if their electoral support is evenly spread over a wide range of districts.




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After 16 years, electoral dynamics finally caught up with Labor in South Australia


By the same token, the increasing proportion of the Australian electorate casting a primary vote for a party other than Labor, Liberal or National is a significant development, and appears to be a recurring theme in recent elections.

It is also having a representational impact, but not in lower houses that use single-member electoral districts (that is, all Australian parliaments except Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory).

Rather, the real locus of minor party impact is to be found in those parliamentary chambers elected under a proportional system. The SA-Best result in South Australia is an example of this: while his party failed to win a lower house seat, Xenophon’s latest venture did secure two seats in the proportionally elected Legislative Council.

The Greens might have suffered an adverse swing in the last state election in Tasmania, but still hold two seats in the House of Assembly.

Meanwhile, the minor parties have a significant impact on national policy debate by holding the balance of power in the Senate. This has been the reality in the Senate for some time.

The recent elections in Tasmania, South Australia and the byelection in Batman have left an impression that the advance of the minor parties has stalled, maybe permanently. This is not necessarily the case.

If the demographic patterns to the voting alignments in Batman are repeated at the Victorian state election on November 24, the Greens could win at least four lower house seats. Meanwhile, the current rate at which electors are voting for minor parties can still have significant representational consequences for proportionally elected chambers such as the Senate.

The sense of minor party failure associated with these recent election contests has been due in part to the tendency to make hyperbolic claims about their prospects in the first place.

The flipside of this is to guard against hyperbolically pessimistic conclusions on the basis of recent electoral events. Tasmania, South Australia and Batman were not good elections for SA-Best or the Greens (or, indeed, Rise Up Australia, the Jacqui Lambie Network or the Australian Conservatives), but that may have been due to the peculiarities of the particular elections.

The ConversationThere is a significant non-major party vote in the Australian system. The place to observe its impact is in the contest and representational outcomes for Australia’s proportionally elected upper houses, including the Senate.

Nick Economou, Senior Lecturer, School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rise in protest votes sounds warning bell for major parties


File 20180309 30969 1c5bxrf.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Minor parties led by high-profile candidates such as Nick Xenophon are particularly appealing away from the big cities.
AAP/Russell Millard

Danielle Wood, Grattan Institute; Carmela Chivers, Grattan Institute, and John Daley, Grattan Institute

Protest politics is on the rise in Australia. At the 2016 federal election, votes for minor parties hit their highest level since 1949. More than one in four Australians voted for someone other than the Liberals, Nationals, ALP or Greens in the Senate, and more than one in eight did likewise for the House of Representatives. First-preference Senate votes for minor parties leapt from 12% in 2004 to 26% in 2016.

The major parties are particularly on the nose in the regions. The further you drive from a capital city, the higher the minor party vote and the more it has risen.

Figure 1 – Minor party vote over time by distance to the GPO.
Grattan Institute

What’s going on? A new Grattan Institute report finds that the minor party vote is mostly a protest against the major parties. It’s a vote for “anyone but them” in favour of a diverse group of parties, often headed by “brand name” personalities.

Figure 2 – Minor party vote by state 2016 election.
Grattan Institute

So why are Australian voters angry? And why are they particularly angry in the regions?

Falling trust in government explains much of the dissatisfaction. Since 2007, there has been a significant increase in the share of people who believe that politicians look after themselves and that government is run by a few big interests.

Figure 3 – Trust in government over time.
Grattan Institute

The growing belief that government is increasingly conducted in the interests of the rulers rather than the ruled feeds voter disillusionment. Minor party voters have less trust in government than those who vote for the majors. And outsider parties have tapped into these concerns with their promises to “keep the bastards honest” and to “drain the swamp”.

Economic factors are less important than you might expect. The rise in the minor party vote doesn’t seem to be about stagnant wages or rising inequality: the vote grew most strongly when real wages were rising but inequality wasn’t. And the biggest increase in the minor party vote was between 2010 and 2013 – when Australians were more optimistic about their immediate financial future than at any other point in the past 15 years.




Read more:
Discontents: identity, politics and institutions in a time of populism


But economics is still relevant. The minor party vote increased as unemployment rose, and minor party voters are more likely than others to have negative views about globalisation and free trade. The protectionist economic policies of many minor parties may therefore account for some of their appeal. And some of their anti-globalisation and “Australia first” rhetoric also taps into broader cultural anxiety about the pace and direction of change.

Many minor parties appeal to voters who don’t like the way our society is changing. Minor parties want to protect the cultural symbols and narratives associated with “traditional Australia”. They are more likely to oppose changing the date of Australia Day, for example.

These views are particularly prominent among One Nation voters: more than 90% of them strongly agree that maintaining an Australian way of life and culture is important. They are also much more likely to be sceptical about the benefits of immigration: about 50% of One Nation voters believe that multiculturalism has not been good for Australia, compared with 15% of Liberal/Nationals voters (the next highest group).

This sense of being left behind by the pace of economic and social change is more prevalent in regional Australia, where the minor party vote is higher and growing faster. Regions hold a falling share of Australia’s population and therefore of Australia’s economy.




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Same-sex marriage results crush the idea that Australian voters crave conservatism


At the same time, Australia’s cultural symbols are becoming more city-centric: less about mateship and more about multiculturalism. People in regional areas are sensitive to this cultural change and are attracted to parties that promise to restore cultural and political power to the regions. Several of the more popular minor parties to arrive on the political scene in recent years – notably One Nation and Nick Xenophon – have gained higher support in the country than they have in the cities.

The rising minor party vote sends a signal to our major party politicians: Australians are not satisfied with politics as usual. Major parties seeking to increase their appeal should focus on what matters to voters: restoring trust and social cohesion.

Rebuilding trust will be a slow process. A period of leadership stability and policy delivery could go a long way. And improving the way we do our politics – reforming political donation laws and tightening regulation of lobbying and political entitlements – could help reduce the incidence of trust-sapping scandals and reassure the public that the system is working for them.

Politicians should also seek to dampen rather than inflame cultural differences. Politicians can lead by stressing the common ground between city and country and between communities with different backgrounds.

The ConversationFailure to heed the warning will mean more elections where Australians unleash their displeasure at the ballot box.

Danielle Wood, Program Director, Budget Policy and Institutions, Grattan Institute; Carmela Chivers, Associate, Grattan Institute, and John Daley, Chief Executive Officer, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australian Politics: 29 September 2013 – The Slow Death of the Greens?


The federal election is over and the Coalition is now in government. Already there is a growing dissatisfaction with the new Abbott-led government over a wide-ranging series of issues including nepotism, asylum seeker policy, the environment, a lack of governance, etc. There is also continuing debate within the various opposition parties concerning their future direction, policies, etc. Yet for the Greens, the future is questionable, with some believing the party to be in serious decline – even among those within the party.

The link below is to an article reporting on the turmoil within the Greens party.

For more visit:
http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/milnes-greens-marching-to-slow-death-20130928-2ulgp.html



Australian Politics: 21 July 2013


The new hardline regime concerning asylum seekers has been implemented with the first boat arriving since the announcement of the changes by Kevin Rudd and Labor. The Coalition is supporting some of the changes, which for Labor should be an alarm bell, meaning it has gone too far to the right.

For more visit:
http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/first-asylum-boat-arrives-under-rudds-hardline-png-solution/story-fn59niix-1226682406568



The link below is to an article that looks at some of the divergent interest parties contesting this year’s federal election.

For more visit:
http://www.easternriverinachronicle.com.au/story/1650949/something-for-everyone-how-niche-parties-are-taking-over-australias-political-landscape/

Australian Politics: 20 July 2013



The Palmer United Party is just one of many political parties contesting the upcoming federal election. Clive Palmer, founder of the party, intends to be Prime Minister after the election – but what is he like? The link below is to an article reporting on the man behind the party.”>

For more visit:
http://www.smh.com.au/national/the-palmersaurus-party-20130715-2pyvl.html

Ever wondered what life is like for a former Prime Minister? The link below is to an article reporting on life after politics for former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

For more visit:
http://www.smh.com.au/national/life-after-politics-for-julia-gillard-the-whirl-is-her-oyster-20130719-2q9ra.html

Australian Politics: 17 July 2013


The asylum seeker controversy in Australia is deepening, with four more deaths after another tragedy at sea last night. There is yet another boat in distress right now as well. Compassion would seem to be much in need from where I sit, yet most Australians seem to have very little when it comes to the plight of refugees and/or asylum seekers.

Still, an election can’t be too far away as the various parties begin the usual pledges to spend money on this and that – certainly infrastructure needs are great in this country.

Meanwhile Kevin Rudd has held a community cabinet meeting overnight.

Australian Politics: 14 July 2013


With the return of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister in Australia, things have been moving along fairly quickly in Australian politics. Time of course is running out as an election looms, so time is necessarily of the essence. One of the areas that the ALP has moved to address is the carbon tax, with Kevin Rudd’s government moving toward an emissions trading scheme. This has brought the typical and expected responses from the opposition, as well as charges of hypocrisy from the Greens. For more visit the following links:

http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/kevin-rudd-confirms-government-to-scrap-fixed-carbon-price-20130714-2pxqi.html

The link below is to an article that pretty much sums up the situation currently in Australian politics I think – well worth a read.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/12/tony-abbott-fall-stunt-men

Also causing continuing angst in Australia is the issue of asylum seekers and boat people. There has been even more terrible news from the seas surrounding Christmas Island, with yet another asylum seeker tragedy involving a boat from Indonesia.

Around the edges of the mainstream parties are those of Bob Katter and Clive Palmer. There are stories of an alleged financial offer from Clive Palmer’s ‘Palmer United Party’ to join with ‘Katter’s Australian Party’ for $20 million dollars and form the combined ‘Katter United Australian Party.’ For more visit the links below:

http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/national/palmer-denies-deal-with-katters-party/story-e6frfku9-1226679175607
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-07-14/katter2c-palmer-at-odds-over-claims-mining-magnate-offered-fin/4819098

And finally, for just a bit of a chuckle – not much of one – just a small chuckle, have a read of the following article linked to at:

http://www.perthnow.com.au/news/turnbull-still-not-laughing-at-tonys-internet-humour/story-fnii5s3z-1226679169349

Nepal Christians Begin Legal Battle for Burial Ground


Hindu group declares country a Hindu state; upper castes seek halt to conversions.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 19 (CDN) — With the government refusing to listen to their three-year plea for an official cemetery and ignoring a protracted hunger strike, Nepal’s Christians are now seeking redress from the Supreme Court.

“Every day there are two to three deaths in the community, and with each death we face a hard time with the burial,” said Chari Bahadur Gahatraj, a pastor who filed a petition in the high court on March 13 asking it to intervene as authorities of Nepal’s oldest Hindu temple had begun demolishing the graves of Christians there.

Gahatraj and Man Bahadur Khatri are both members of the newly formed Christian Burial Ground Prayer and National Struggle Committee that since last month began leading a relay hunger strike in a public area of the capital, asking for a graveyard. They said they were forced to go to court after the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), which runs Nepal’s oldest Hindu shrine, the Pashupatinath temple, said it would no longer allow non-Hindus to use the temple’s forested land.

“We don’t want to hurt the sentiments of any community,” Gahatraj told Compass. “Nor are we trying to grab the land owned by a temple. We are ready to accept any plot given to us. All we are asking for is that the burials be allowed till we get an alternate site.”

Judge Awadhesh Kumar Yadav has since ordered the government and PADT not to prevent Christians from using the forest for burials until the dispute is resolved. The legal battle, however, now involves a counter-suit. Hindu activist Bharat Jangam filed a second writ on March 20, saying that since the forest was the property of a Hindu temple, non-Hindus should not be allowed to bury their dead there just as churches do not allow Hindu burials.

Subsequently, the court decided to hear the two petitions together, and yesterday (April 18), the hearings began. While two lawyers argued on behalf of Gahatraj and Khatri, a cohort of 15 lawyers spoke against their petition. The next hearing is scheduled for May 3.

Along with the legal battle, Christians have kept up their relay hunger strike. To step up pressure on the government, the protestors also announced they would lead a funeral march to the offices of the prime minister and the culture minister and hand over coffins to them as a symbolic protest. If that too failed, they warned they would have no option but to go on hunger strike in front of the prime minister’s office and parliament, this time carrying dead bodies with them.

Alarmed at the rate the issue was snowballing, the government finally responded. Yesterday Culture Minister Gangalal Tuladhar opened talks with the protestors, agreeing to continue the negotiations after three days. The government also formed a four-member committee to look into the demand. Currently, Christians are asking for cemetery land in all 75 districts of Nepal.

Protestors were wary of the government’s intent in the overture.

“This could be a ploy to buy time and bury the issue,” said a member of the Christian committee formed to advise parliament on drafting the new constitution, who requested anonymity.

Though the committee formed to look into the Christians’ demand for burial land has been asked to present a report within two weeks, Christians suspect the panel is dragging its feet.

“The new constitution has to be promulgated by May 28, but it does not seem likely that the main political parties will be able to accomplish the task,” the Christian committee member said. “And if the constitution doesn’t materialize in time, there will be a crisis and our problem will be shelved.”

 

Hindu Nation

Adding to their unease, Christians are now facing a redoubled campaign by Hindu groups for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion, five years after parliament declared Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, secular.

If the new constitution had been promulgated last year, it would have consolidated secularism in Nepal. But with the country missing the deadline due to protracted power-sharing rows among the major political parties, Christians still feel under threat.

On Thursday (April 14), when the country celebrated the start of the indigenous new year 2068 with a public holiday, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, which seeks the reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, kicked off a campaign at the Bhadrakali temple in Kathmandu. As curious onlookers and soldiers patrolling the nearby army headquarters looked on, party members fervently blew into conch shells and rang bells to draw people’s attention to their demand.

The party, which is also seeking the restoration of monarchy, took some oblique shots at the Christian community as well.

“There is a deliberate and systematic attempt by organizations to convert Hindus,” said Kamal Thapa, party chief and a former minister. “These organizations are guided by foreign powers and foreign funds. If the widespread conversion of Hindus is not stopped immediately, we will have to take stern measures.”

Three days later, an umbrella of Hindu groups – the Rastriya Dharma Jagaran Mahasabha (the National Religion Resurrection Conference) held a massive gathering in the capital, declaring Nepal a “Hindu state” and meeting with no official objection. The proclamation came as the climax to a three-day public program calling for the restoration of “the traditional Hindu state.” Several Hindu preachers and scholars from neighboring India attended the program, held on the grounds of the Pashupatinath temple, which is also a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site.

The “Hindu state” proclamation was the brainchild of Shankar Prasad Pandey, a former member of parliament from Nepali Congress, the second largest party in Nepal, now in opposition. Though Pandey was a sitting Member of Parliament in 2006, when the body unanimously declared Nepal secular, he began opposing the move soon afterwards, leading four campaigns against it nationwide.

“I consider the nation and the Hindu religion to be more important than the party,” said Pandey, known as the MP who began to go barefoot 32 years ago to show solidarity with Nepalese, who are among the poorest in the world. “Over 90 percent of the Nepalese want Nepal to be a Hindu state. However, the government is led by people whose only concern is power and money.”

Pandey’s campaign is supported by Hindu groups from India and the West: Narendranath Saraswati, who is the Shankaracharya or religious head of a prominent Hindu shrine in India’s Varanasi city; Dr. Tilak Chaitanya, chief of a group in the United Kingdom that propagates the Gita, the holy book of the Hindus; and Tahal Kishore, head of a Hindu organization, Radha Krishna Sevashram, in the United States.

Two weeks before the May 28 deadline for the new constitution, Pandey and his followers plan to step up the campaign for a “Hindu state” in the capital. Though Pandey denies it could stir up animosity between the majority-Hindus and Christians – whose minority population is said to have crossed 2 million but is actually only 850,801, according to Operation World – there are fears of religious tension if not outright violence.

The Hindu rallies continue to grow as a pressure tactic. Yesterday (April 18), members of Nepal Brahman Samaj, an organization of “upper castes” from whose echelons temple priests are appointed, fought with security forces in front of parliament house, demanding their rights be respected and an end to conversions.

More Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) campaigning is scheduled on April 29, when the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s Thapa has called for a mass gathering in the capital.  

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org