Nepal has been a laboratory of too many political experiments, but none of them, except the one between December 1960 and 1990, resulted in political stability and infrastructure development. That was, however, under absolute monarchy, with political parties banned under law.
The post-1990 experiments — first with monarchy in democracy, then Republicanism — have come at the cost of political stability, causing major concern at home and abroad. “Political stability” comes at the top of the international community’s “wish-list” for Nepal that gets manifested in every formal or informal comment. After a long gap, Nepal’s annual economic growth rate is projected at over 6 per cent. But there are fears that a badly managed political system will spoil that possibility again. The fear is not unfounded.
Sher Bahadur Deuba took over as the third prime minister after the constitution was promulgated in September 2015, and the 10th since Nepal’s experiment towards radical politics and republicanism began in early 2006. Deuba, like his coalition partner and predecessor, Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the CPN-Maoist Centre, believes that “implementing” the current constitution is his primary goal, and holding elections to the remaining 481 local bodies, seven provincial bodies and the federal parliament, by the constitutionally mandated deadline of January 21, will be
evidence of the constitution being enforced.
But within two weeks of his assuming charge, Deuba had to retreat. The Opposition has accused him of encouraging divisive trends. On Thursday, the cabinet postponed the second phase of elections to the local bodies in province number two, a core Madhes region, to September 18 — polls in provinces 1, 5 and 7 will take place as scheduled on
The reason ostensibly given by the government for postponing elections in Province 2 is to draw in the Madhes-based Rastriya Janata Party (RJP) to the electoral process, and, by extension, into the constitutional fold. The first phase of the elections took place a month ago. The provinces whose boundaries are already drawn do not have a “name”. This tricky issue will have to be tackled by the respective provincial legislatures after the elections.
The decision to put off elections in Province 2, many fear, will force the government to follow suit in Province 5 as well, since their social, ethnic and political composition and demands are similar. The RJP, on the other hand, has made it clear that it will suspend its agitation and protest demonstrations only in Province 2.
The RJP, besides demanding a very liberal citizenship provision, also insists on proportional representation in local bodies, state legislatures and the federal parliament, provided by a constitutional amendment. Other parties are opposed to the demand: They believe it will sow the seeds of division in a country that has fairly mixed population pockets. Moreover, with the ruling coalition not having a two-thirds majority in parliament, and even Madhes groups divided, the constitutional amendment looks distant.
The relations between the king and political parties nosedived in 2002, when Deuba as prime minister recommended that the parliamentary elections scheduled in November be postponed by a year in view of the Maoist insurgency. King Gyanendra not only declined to accept the recommendation, but dismissed Deuba on charges of incompetence, choosing Lokendra Bahadur Chand and Surya Bahadur Thapa as prime ministers. The latter were told to negotiate with the Maoists.
Gyanendra reinstated Deuba in April 2004 with the same mandate, but took over the reins in February 2005. He sought support at home and from the international community for three years as he wanted to “contain terrorists” (Maoists) before office was returned to political parties. The international community, with the exception of China,
refused to accept Gyanendra’s position. This experiment proved costly for the king. Political protests in Nepal, and India’s mediation, brought “underground Maoists” and seven major political parties closer. Together, they decided to abolish the monarchy.
What if the government fails to hold elections as mandated by the constitution? The postponement of local body elections in Province 2, and the uncertainty in Province 5, are likely to impact the federal elections
as well. The post-2006 experiment has seen leaders assuming extra-constitutional powers and dictating the course of politics as a matter of rule rather than exception. Top leaders of the major parties have often invented “consensus” to override the constitution.
However, finding a substitute for elections is not going to be an easy option. The failure to hold elections to parliament by January 21, a possibility that is increasing by the day, amounts to an admission that the “new”
constitution is dead. Dahal may stand by Deuba as promised, but the people’s right to self-determination and their right to elect representatives is something the leaders will need to respect.