Nepal elections: Challenges for democracy
POLITICALLY seen, Nepal is in a weird situation. It has had neither a Parliament nor an adopted Constitution for the past 15 months, and is currently being guided by an Interim Constitution (2007). How did the Himalayan nation arrive at this juncture?
The Constituent Assembly (CA) elected on April 10, 2008 was dissolved in May 28, 2012, four years after it failed miserably to draft the National Charter. The CA had mandate to draft a new Constitution within two years. Even after four extensions of its tenure it was unsuccessful in producing the document.
At the last elections the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (UCPN-Maoist) led by Pushpa Kumar Dahal (Prachanda) secured 229 seats. The centre-right Nepali Congress got 115 seats and the centre-left Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) obtained 108 seats. The remaining 149 seats went to smaller parties. Though the UCPN got the largest block of seats it failed to obtain a clear majority in the 601-member CA. That probably was the root of its undoing.
However, after a bitter power struggle Prachanda succeeded in becoming the first prime minister of democratic Nepal, heading a coalition government. Under Prachanda's stern control, the first session of the Assembly on May 28, 2008, abolished the 240-year old Shah Dynasty. The Interim Constitution was amended and the nation became "Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal" from "Kingdom of Nepal."
Ideologically, Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML are nearer to each other and, given the numbers in the Assembly, they formed the main opposition to UCPN. Since becoming prime minister Prachanda faced stiff opposition from the NC-UML combine. The other smaller parties shifted their allegiance continuously according to convenience. Prachanda finally resigned in May 2009 after an unpleasant confrontation with President Ram Baran Yadav over the dismissal of the army chief.
The past five years saw five prime ministers—each undermined by conspiracies hatched by those not in power. Prachanda was succeeded by Madhav Kumar Nepal (UML) from May 2009 to February 2011. He had to quit under intense pressure from UCPN. Actually, between June 2010 and February 2011 there was no effective government in the country. Jhala Nath Khanal (CPN-UML) came in February 2011 and had to leave in August 2011, when he failed to give in to UCPN demands. Baburam Bhattarai (UCPN) was prime minister from August 2011 to March 2013. He dissolved the Assembly in May 2012, when it failed to deliver the Constitution and the Supreme Court ruled that a fifth extension of the CA would be unconstitutional. Fresh elections were announced for November 2012.
The dissolution of the Parliament immediately triggered political and legal uncertainties. Because of legal ambiguity a struggle began over the powers of the president and the prime minister. Baburam Bhattarai insisted that since the Parliament did not exist he would exercise all executive powers. President Ram Baran Yadav (NC) refused to give any leeway to the Maoist prime minister. The other major issue that they failed to resolve was whether the country should be divided into federal states along ethnic lines.
Bitter debates on these and other issues spread across party lines and polarised the nation. Rebellion within the major parties also surfaced. Inter-party and intra-party squabbling reached feverish heights. Political parties representing ethnic and marginalised groups also pitched in, supporting either the Maoists or the NC-ed alliance. Constant bickering made the politicians inflexible—unable to arrive at a consensus on any issue.
By February 2013 the situation became explosive. Maoists-led parties demanded postponement of the election date, while the NC-UML led parties wanted to get rid of Bhattarai. Maoists were apprehensive that NC President Sushil Koirala may become prime minister. The stalemate led to talks among the major parties on March 13, 2013, at President Yadav's "Shital Niwas" residence. A syndicate of four parties emerged, known as "High Level Political Committee" (HLPC), which agreed on an 11-point agreement to oust Bhattarai and form an election-time government headed by the chief justice. The HLPC consist of leaders of UCPN, NC, UML and United Democratic Madhesi Front.
Maoist Baburam Bhattarai finally quit on March 14, 2013, and handed over powers to Khil Raj Regmi, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Regmi, who refused to give up his Supreme Court post, is heading an 11-member technocrat cabinet to supervise the upcoming elections. The setting up of Regmi government was clearly an extra-constitutional step taken by the president at the bidding of the HLPC. Regmi announced that elections will be held on November 19, 2013.
Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) led by Mohan Baidya is a breakaway faction of the larger UCPN led by Prachanda. Baidya claims he leads an alliance of 33 parties, and questioned the legitimacy of HLPC taking decisions of behalf of the Regmi government. Baidya warned that no elections could be held unless Regmi resigned and the Interim Constitution amended to hold elections.
Nepal's two big neighbours are not sitting idle to what is happening in Kathmandu. Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was in Kathmandu on September 14 and held talks with top Nepali leaders. She said she was hopeful that elections will be held on time. Hardline Maoist leader CP Gajurel accused India of interfering in Nepal's politics. China also dispatched Cai Moinzhu, State Minister for Information, to Kathmandu on September 19 to hold talks with Nepali leaders. Clearly, the two neighbours are deeply concerned about what goes on in their sandwiched neighbour.
Nepal has been in turmoil since the rise of the Maoist insurgency. After more than12,000 people were killed the country took to the path of peace and reconciliation in 2006. The democratic process, which began in 2008, has repeatedly been stymied. Their collective failure at the CA reflects the nature of the power struggle that goes on unendingly in Nepal. Unless the politicians face the challenges and rise above their petty personal gains and hold elections next November, Nepal's peace process and democracy may be jeopardy.
We in Bangladesh can probably take lesson from the developments in Nepal.
The writer is a former ambassador and secretary.