Nepal: Another shot at getting it right
With pundits predicting a hung Parliament, the Himalayan nation may go back to the same state of uncertainty witnessed after the 2008 polls
Kamal Dev Bhattarai Kathmandu
After the first Constituent Assembly (CA), elected in 2008, failed to deliver a new constitution, Nepal is holding another CA election on November 19. The new CA will write a new constitution to institutionalize the nation as a secular, federal republic after abolishment of the 240-year-old monarchy in 2008. But sharp differences between political parties on key issues and growing extremist violence do not augur well.
The CA of 2008 was dissolved last year after it failed to write a new constitution due to disputes on issues of federalism and forms of governance amongst major parties. During the run-up to the elections, political parties are canvassing across the country — pledging that they will complete the unfinished task of constitution-drafting. There has been a spike in violence due to growing clashes between parties, posing a serious threat to the peaceful conduct of the election.
The Communist Party of Nepal (CPN-Maoist), the breakaway faction of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (UCPN-Maoist) formed in June last year, has launched a vicious anti-election campaign across the country. Cadres of the CPN-Maoist, which believes that even the new CA will not be able to come up with a “pro-people” constitution, are attacking candidates and torching their vehicles. They have called a general strike ahead of the election, which is threatening the entire poll process. Although all the major parties are in the election race, many have begun to raise doubts about the election due to CPN-Maoist intransigence.
The interim election government headed by the Supreme Court chief justice has mobilized the Nepal Army, which is deployed in all 240 electoral constituencies in coordination with other security agencies.
Political observers fear that the country will be in for another round of instability and conflict if the CPN-Maoist is excluded in the elections. Some voices have begun to demand that the elections be postponed
But the international community, led by India, wants the elections as scheduled, with or without the CPN-Maoist. China, which is increasing its influence in Nepal’s politics, had counselled that the CPN-Maoist not
There are four major political forces in Nepal — the UCPN (Maoist), Nepali Congress (NC), CPN-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) and Madhes-based parties. The Maoist party, the former rebel, emerged the largest party in the 2008 CA elections, while the NC, UML and Madhes-based parties secured second, third and fourth positions, respectively.
This time, it is harder to predict the result. Political analysts say the UCPN (Maoist) is weak across the country due to the split in the party last year. The NC and UML will do better if they can manage the internal rift due to “unfair” selection of party candidates. The Madhes-based parties, which emerged as a decisive force in the country after the 2008 election, are also divided into different parties and groups.
How parties fare in Madhes, where 51 per cent of the country’s population lives, will be a decisive factor. Top Maoist leaders and former prime ministers Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai are contesting from Madhes to strengthen their party position in the southern belt. The NC and UML are also working hard.
It is almost sure that no party will secure a majority in the CA, required to form a single party-led government. The hung parliament will see a repetition of what Nepal witnessed after the 2008 elections, with frequent changes in government.
Political observers fear that the country will be in for another round of instability and conflict if the CPN-Maoist is excluded in the election. Some have begun to demand that the election be postponed to 2014
The issue of federalism is prominent in the election campaign. The UCPN (Maoist) has unveiled an agendum of federating into 11 states on the basis of particular castes or ethnic communities. But the NC and UML have proposed a seven-state model on the basis of multiple-identity-based federalism. The model of federalism in Madhes is also disputed. Some Madhes-based parties have proposed ‘one Madhes, one province’, but the major parties say there should be multiple provinces.
The model of federalism in Nepal is of serious concern for India and China. Both countries have suggested Nepal’s political parties adopt federalism to prevent further conflict. They fear that instability in Nepal will affect their security concerns.
Differences exist regarding the forms of governance also. The Maoists have proposed a president directly elected by the people, while the NC wants a prime minister elected by parliament, and the UML seeks a people-elected prime minister.
In their election manifestos, political parties have expressed commitment to promulgating a new constitution within a year of the polls. Some also seem ready to take ownership of the progress made by the former CA.
The major parties have also agreed to go for a referendum if the new CA too fails to settle the contentious issues of the new constitution. The earlier CA accomplished 90 per cent of the constitution-drafting process but some major political issues remain unresolved.
The number of political parties participating in polls has increased significantly. In 2008, 54 parties participated; this time, 122 are contesting the election. Some regional and caste- or ethnic-based parties have emerged. If the number of parties in the CA increases, it will complicate the functioning and will
ultimately hamper the constitution-drafting process.
The general public recalls that, from 2008–2012, parties spent a lot of time and funds from the state treasury for the writing of the constitution, extending the CA’s tenure by two years after its original mandate of two years. Will it be different this time around?