Nepal: Changing Fortunes?

The quest for political stability in Nepal has begun.

Nepal’s first Constituent Assembly (CA) was elected in April 2008. The assembly was one of the principal outcomes of the People’s Movement of 2006 and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2007, the latter of which brought an end to the ten-year armed struggle between the state and the Nepal Communist Party (Maoist).

The 601-seat CA was the most diverse legislative body ever elected in Nepali history, and possibly in the political history of South Asia. One-third of its members were women, one-third were Janajati (ethnic minorities), and one-third were Madhesi (people of the southern Tarai plains). Further, Dalits occupied 8.7% of the seats. Meanwhile, elections took place under a mixed system of “first past the post” for the country’s 240 electoral constituencies and “proportional representation” (PR) for 335 seats, with 26 nominations making up the number. Parties were required to submit lists of PR candidates, ensuring a minimum level of representation for underrepresented groups, with 50% of the total to be women.

The Failed Assembly

The CA failed to produce a constitution for the new federal republic even after three extensions of its term in office; the assembly was eventually dissolved in May 2012. The reasons for this failure are still debated, but they certainly include the Indian political reaction to the unexpected emergence of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) — or UCPN(M) — as the largest group in the assembly and the many tensions and difficulties that arose in the peace-building process as a result, particularly in relation to the merging of Nepal’s two armies.

More broadly, however, the CA’s failure can be attributed to the fact that the effort to achieve a consensus on the constitution involved (mostly male and Brahmin) senior party leaders in high-level political struggle, with the bulk of assembly members being marginalized. Although the representation of marginalized communities had significantly improved, the level of their participation remained low.

Ultimately, the main points over which an agreement could not be secured included the future form of government, the electoral system and, perhaps most fatally, the question of how Nepal would be restructured as a federal state.

Janajati activists wanted provinces to be created and named after their largest ethnic minority, with indigenous groups being granted preferential rights to natural resources and some form of priority entitlement (termed as agra-adhikar) to political leadership positions. Madhesi activists wanted to see either one or two autonomous provinces.

But there was substantial opposition, even to significantly watered down versions of these proposals. There was also a practical difficulty, however, as the distribution of the Janajati population across Nepal represents a kind of ethnic mosaic, while a Janajati group constitutes a numerical majority in very few districts.

Stuck in Limbo?

Since the dissolution of the first CA, Nepal has been in a state of suspended transition. Controversially, the interim legislature was headed by the country’s chief justice because the political parties could not produce a consensus prime minister. After achieving such a spectacular electoral result in 2008, the UCPN(M) squandered the popular support it had gathered. Moreover, in June 2012, a faction broke away to become the NCP-Maoist, accusing the mother party of abandoning the ideology of revolutionary struggle.

Along with 32 minor parties, the new party tried to prevent and disrupt the elections with threats of violence, bandhs (general strikes), and the occasional bombing. The Nepali media quickly adopted a new shorthand for the two parties. The new party was labeled the “Dashists,” in an allusion to the hyphenated party name, and the old party was dubbed the “Cashists,” in reference to its alleged surrender to corruption and capitalist consumerism.

Eventually, and against many predictions, at least 65% of the electorate voted on November 19, 2013, to elect a new Constituent Assembly. Although the run-up to the vote was accompanied by normal campaigning practices of Nepali political actors — including vote-buying, threats, promises of favors, and so on — the polling process was universally acclaimed as free and fair by national and international observers, and only failed to take place in one constituency where the CPN-M Dashists held firm sway.

The results represented a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the UCPN(M), whose total number of seats fell to a mere 80 compared to 220 in 2008. This was largely due to the internal split, which robbed the party of many of its most committed cadres, and to public perceptions of the senior leadership as both arrogant and corrupt. As it became clear that the UCPN(M) was losing badly, its leadership cried foul and called for the counting of votes to be suspended, but to no avail.

The largest share of the vote was secured by the Nepali Congress, a centrist party that is the country’s oldest major grouping, which won 196 seats. The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) — or CPN-UML — which now professes a heavily diluted form of communism, came a close second with 175 seats.

However, even a coalition between the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML will not constitute the two-thirds numerical majority in the CA that will be needed to enact a new constitution — a third partner will be required.

Such a coalition is likely to be fractious and progress on constitution-drafting will probably be hindered by internal power struggles. Moreover, in many Tarai constituencies, candidates from the Nepali Congress or CPN-UML were victorious in the first past the post contest with only a very small share of the vote. While the Madeshi Jan Adhikar Forum won 52 seats in the 2008 assembly, the Madeshi vote was split between eight different parties in 2013 as the forum won only ten seats, letting Nepali Congress and CPN-UML candidates win in many places.

The new CA membership will include not only fewer Maoists, but also fewer representatives of historically marginalized groups. Although the interim Constitution promulgated in 2007 contains a commitment to federalism (on the core principles of “equality, inclusion and a unifying national identity”), it is generally assumed that the election outcome represents a resounding rejection of ethnic federalism. With the political landscape now narrowing to fewer parties, some analysts suggest that there is a prospect for greater political stability in future.

However, this may be optimistic. With no party advancing an ethnic federalist agenda, its proponents may feel forced to adopt more of the same disruptive extra-parliamentary measures that have bedeviled political stability and economic development in Nepal for the past 20 years.

Moving Forward

The election of a new Constituent Assembly is the first positive development for many months in Nepal’s faltering process of national re-self-definition. However, the coming months will see a great deal of argument and negotiation over questions such as which party will be granted which ministerial portfolio. As such, the drafting of a new constitution may not be given priority.

Outside the assembly, the CPN-M and the UCPN(M) may begin to mend their differences, while Janajati and Madhesi activists may protest loudly that the government has abandoned the agenda of inclusion and is reducing the promised federalism to minimal decentralization.

It is difficult to be optimistic that the parties now represented in the Constituent Assembly will be able to achieve a two-thirds majority behind any constitution. But Nepal is no longer at war, and its politicians still speak to one another across the party walls. Although much of the state remains dysfunctional and many Nepalis have no better way of meeting their needs than simply emigrating to work abroad, at least the country now has an elected body charged with forging its future — a process that can now begin once again.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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