SPEAKING FREELY Apprehension and hope over Nepal vote
By Liam Anderson
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Nepal's long-awaited Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, set for November 19, offer the potential to break the political deadlock that has beset the country since the assembly was dissolved last May and put post-war peace and state building back on track.
Campaigns are underway, nominations have been registered, and parties have announced their manifestos. These target large economic growth, but the country faces several major issues, including ethno-national divisions and vulnerable minority rights,
post-war reconciliation and war-time crimes prosecution, balancing relations with its two large neighbors, and poor infrastructure and unemployment.
Dissolution and deadlock
Since the end of the civil war in 2006, Nepal has suffered from political wrangling, with periods of near-complete impasse and others of more successful compromise. The CA was established in 2008 to create a new constitution and system of government. It was extended several times from its original deadline in 2010, becoming more distant from support on the ground, and its tenure finally expired in May 2012.
While significant progress was made on contentious issues in the months before its expiry, the parties were unable to come to a conclusive agreement on the constitution before the Supreme Court's final deadline.
In the aftermath, political gridlock returned. Elections were announced for later the same year in order to establish a new government to finish the CA's work. As the CA's dissolution was rejected by some, and there was much disagreement over the composition of the government which would lead Nepal into elections, these elections were delayed until finally being established in mid-2013 for November 19.
Since the CA's end, little progress has been achieved. The near-failure to agree a government budget in November 2012, which would have severely hurt Nepal's already troubled economy, illustrated the extent of inter-party stalemate.
The four main forces are the "mainstream" Maoist party (UCPN-M), which was by far the largest in the 2008 elections; the Nepal Congress (NC); the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML); and the Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha (SLMM) front of Madhesi parties. The political impasse, especially after the CA dissolved, has been exacerbated by individual ambitions and changing alliances, which only undermines their public credibility.
The most contentious post-war issue was originally the peaceful integration of the Maoists' People's Liberation Army into either the Nepali military or civilian life. This has now largely been concluded, with a comparatively small number joining the military and many others accepting other agreements or being disqualified from such processes. However, discontented ex-combatants, a number of whom now support the hardliner CPN-M party which split from the main UCPN-M after the CA's demise, may stage protests or play a political role in the future.
The issue which then came to dominate political disagreement was identity-based federalism. It is such a powerful issue because many groups felt marginalized in the past by upper-caste Hindu Nepali predominance and are now anxious to ensure they are not forgotten in making the new state. There is much division over the structure of federalism, and some are fearful of losing out in this change.
There are difficulties with implementing federalism, particularly the need to find state boundaries and names taht are equally inclusive of Nepal's diverse population. Given the ethnically Nepali-dominated history of the country and its widespread support, though, it would be difficult and electorally risky for major parties to ignore it. The UML and NC have been skeptical, but identity-based federalism is backed by the UCPN-M and Madhesi parties and by other smaller groups.
Numerous incidents of election-related violence, and other protests, have been reported - for example, a UML candidate was reportedly shot in early October - and there is a real risk that violence could escalate around and during the polls.
The most likely sources of disruption are: from groups protesting the elections which may target polling stations, especially the CPN-M; between supporters of rival participating parties; and other armed groups, particularly in the southern Tarai region. The easily crossed Indo-Nepal border is to be sealed from November 18 to 20 to prevent people or arms smuggling during the elections.
The government has reportedly decided that, unlike during the 2008 CA elections, it will deploy the army in significant numbers for security. While security must be ensured, however, there is a danger that this may escalate any incidents, or even "invite" violence.
Prachanda, the UCPN-M's chairman, has also reportedly called for party activists to retaliate to any attacks against elections, which may be ominous for inter-party clashes, particularly with CPN-M cadres.
The CPN-M and a number of smaller parties have continued to reject elections, although some at least have agreed to participate after talks. CPN-M leaders announced that talks to bring them on board had failed as they suspected heavy foreign interference, and they did not recognize the interim government.
The CPN-M intends to "actively boycott" elections and it is possible that it may later use its non-participation to dispute the results. This rejection of elections, despite inter-party talks, is worrying for stability, and efforts for dialogue with dissident parties must continue. However, Nepalis cannot wait indefinitely for elections, imperfect as they may be, and an end to political stagnation.
It is a sign of political splintering that many more parties have registered for these elections than those of 2008. As an incredibly diverse country, this has been a perhaps inevitable result of the drawn-out post-conflict peace process and constitution writing, especially after the first CA's dissolution. As Nepal's political future remained uncertain for longer and longer, divisions within the large parties deepened and smaller groups became more active, disillusioned with the main parties. This division made decision-making even more difficult, and saw heightened communal tensions.
Representation is a key issue for Nepal, of minorities, women, LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) groups, Dalits, and others. Major parties should, for inclusivity and popular support, aim to politically represent these groups as much as possible. Accessible, effective local government would be an important measure to address underlying communal divisions, which have continued to shape political dynamics and tensions.
The proliferation of smaller ethnic or local parties is related to this, and they may gain more electoral presence if popular disillusionment with the main parties worsens and they are perceived to have not sufficiently addressed issues relevant to them, such as language rights.
After the years of slow inter-party negotiations, many Nepalis may be tired of the main political actors. Added to factionalism and splits in the major parties, the upcoming polls may well show more divided results. However, hopefully a newly-elected government can rejuvenate negotiations and induce cooperation between the major parties, giving them some sense of unity of purpose.
The UCPN-M seems likely to remain the largest single party, although perhaps without as large a lead as last time; an important question is who would join it to form a government? The previous Maoist-Madhesi alliance was strong. The Madhesi parties are prone to division, though, and may struggle to present a strong united front. Despite factionalism and losing some minority members, the NC and UML remain major parties. The unlikelihood of a single-party majority, and inevitable coalition-making, will pose many post-elections calculations for the parties.
Coalitions will probably be shaped by the larger parties, but if the UCPN-M manages to achieve a near-majority, small parties could take an important role. Among the smaller parties many are identity-based, but monarchists and Hindu nationalists remain, if quite marginally, and hope to fare better this time.
Whatever the result, the Nepali people are in dire need of stability, development, a political class that prioritizes their needs, governmental inclusiveness and a peace process that works.
More work to be done
Once the elections are completed, parties will resume the tough tasks of constitution-writing and deciding the government and state structure, including federalism and presidential powers. It is crucial for the parties to sincerely compromise, so as to avoid simply moving from a standoff over elections to one over the constitution. Nepal's ever-looming neighbors, India and China, will watch the elections unfold carefully, wary of volatility at their borders.
There remains much work to do for durable political stability, but successful elections are an important and now necessary step in this direction. While the main parties have suffered splits and have had since May 2012 to diverge further on key issues, and smaller parties have multiplied, hopefully a widely-accepted CA will offer the opportunity to Nepal's parties to finish the constitution and start building a stable, inclusive state.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Liam Anderson graduated from Sciences Po with a Master's in International Affairs with a focus on South Asia.