The vote,at last

But the mere holding of an election may not offer a solution to Nepal’s instability.

Published:November 19, 2013 7:19 am

Seven years ago,Nepal’s half-a-dozen “tall leaders” stood together on a public platform and promised,“We will never repeat the mistakes we committed in the past,and establish a democracy that will never be snatched away by anyone.” They also promised to conduct a politics of consensus. They were responding to a moment of euphoria when the then king,Gyanendra Shah,had handed power back to political parties after 15 months of direct rule,under pressure from a mass movement backed by the international community,with India taking a lead role. The monarchy was abolished in May 2008,and the leaders promised to write a constitution through the Constituent Assembly (CA) just elected by the people.

Those promises went unfulfilled. The CA elected for a two-year term extended itself by two years but failed to hold even a single session of a full House to discuss reports that 11 committees had prepared on elements of the constitution. The politics of consensus collapsed. There were five prime ministers in as many years — one from the Nepali Congress and two each from the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML). As the CA’s term ended in failure in May 2012,mutual distrust among the parties peaked. They refused to accept any party or leader as head of the electoral government. Under the initiative of the UN,US and India,they agreed in March 2013 to the appointment of Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi as the executive head to replace Baburam Bhattarai,on the condition that he would conduct a free and fair election to the second CA. That election will finally be held today,after being postponed from November 22,2012.

How will the second CA be different from the first? Will the leaders be more serious about constitution-making? The international community believes that electing another CA is the only way to consolidate democracy,shorten the already long transition and gain international legitimacy for the political process in this fragile nation. While the international community’s capacity to dictate Nepal’s political course has expanded,its ability to read the situation correctly and prescribe a workable formula has been questioned by the average Nepali citizen. The Supreme Court’s impartiality and independence have been visibly compromised when it came to rescuing the CJ and his government. While elections promote democracy,an independent judiciary and adherence to the principle of separation of powers are also non-negotiable for its success.

The first CA was elected amidst hope generated by the entry of the Maoists into the democratic fold and by the end to the decade-long conflict (1996-2006) that killed thousands. Everyone cherished the silence of the guns. The Maoists were elected to a respectable number of seats,in part because their participation in democratic politics was necessary for peace to prevail. They emerged as the single largest party,followed by the Nepali Congress. The CPN-UML was the third largest party. The last election also saw the emergence of two major Madhes-based parties on the strength of their movement for “One Madhes-One Pradesh” when Nepal went federal.

Today,these actors have lost their credibility in proportion to the trust put in them last election. The two Madhes groups have since split into more than a dozen. Similarly,the CPN-UML and the UCPN-M also suffered splits soon after the CA’s demise. The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M),which broke away from the UCPN-M,has not only chosen to boycott the polls,but also used violence to discourage people’s participation,claiming that the election is being held under external pressure. In their appeals in support of the election,the UN,US and India warned the anti-poll alliance that the use of violence would be “illegal as well as unacceptable”. But the international community is clearly underestimating the impact the CPN-M’s absence will have on the political process. The exclusion of any group,especially one with a history of raising arms,which contributed to the political change in 2006 will defeat the spirit of the peace process. Despite the international solidarity and support for the polls,political fragmentation and a fractured mandate are likely to reduce the election to irrelevance.

The Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal,a party that has promised to restore Nepal’s status as a “Hindu nation” and its constitutional monarchy — and has the cow for its symbol — has emerged as a popular force,at least under the proportional representation system. During the last election,the pro-monarchy and traditional forces were a demoralised lot,with no significant presence. This time,public anger is directed against the key parties and their leaders — a common charge they face is that they “bartered the country’s sovereign decision-making power to external powers”.

In principle,the election to the second CA is being seen as an assertion of that sovereignty. But the absence of political clarity,the multiplicity of parties and their tangential approaches to key issues such as secular vs Hindu Nepal,monarchy vs republic and the federal model,all imply that the mere holding of elections will offer no solution to Nepal’s longstanding anarchy and instability,unless the emerging players behave differently and accommodate for all sides. But failure may also have disastrous consequences — apart from further prolonging the transition,in the worst-case scenario,Nepal may see a return to conflict.

Yubaraj Ghimire

yubaraj.ghimire@expressindia.com

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