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In Nepal: Holding Constituent Assembly Elections, Attempt #3

February 20, 2008

After canceling elections in June, and again in November 2007, the ruling coalition in Nepal is trying to assure the Nepali people that there will be a Constituent Assembly (CA) election on April 10, 2008. According to a recent poll, only 22 percent of Nepalis believe them. Although this election date is surrounded by as much uncertainty as the earlier ones, this third attempt may actually succeed because, this time, the stakes on all sides are much higher.

In June 2007, the elections were postponed when the bickering Seven Party Alliance (SPA) could not pass a revised Election Act on time. In November, the Maoists managed to thwart the elections by walking out of the government and refusing to file their nomination lists, sensing an anti-Maoist wave of public sentiment, particularly in the Terai, the southern plains of Nepal. This time around, ethnic unrest in the Terai is the most frequently cited reason for possible postponement of the election, and not without reason: last week, a three-day strike in the Terai was enough to make every fuel pump in Kathmandu to go dry.

The Terai “problem” has several dimensions. Starting as an identity-based social movement against two centuries of Pahade (upper-cast Hindus from the hills) domination, the Madhesi (people from Terai) have since polarized into two camps: a left-leaning militant secessionist movement and a right-of-center federalist movement. While the factions within the militant front are politically less significant and their demands are much detached from the spectrum of possible resolutions, the federalist front is politically impossible to ignore.

The federalist Madhesi alliance wants the entire southern belt of Nepal (20 districts of the Terai) to be declared a federated territory with the right of self-determination, before the election. While federalization of Nepal is a broadly accepted political proposition, two of the lager parties within Nepal’s ruling coalition”the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist)”reject the term “right to self-determination” as well as the demanded timeline: before the elections. An immediate concession to these two key demands is also complicated by the fact that the Madhesi movement does not hold much influence in 11 Terai districts of the Western and Eastern regions where indigenous ethnic groups and Pahades are in the majority. This makes the idea of a single, 20-district federated Terai politically unviable. While the Madhesi movement leaders understand this, they are holding on to the demand as a bargaining chip.

Then there is the India factor. Prime Minister Koirala had once suggested that the Terai problem could be resolved “within minutes” if India were to be serious about resolving it. Since the Madhesi movement draws much of its money and sometimes its muscle from the other side of the boarder, it is conceivable that India does have a role in an eventual resolution of the problem, but the Prime Minister’s analysis does not sufficiently separate out the role of the Government of India from the support of the general public living along the Indian border. More notably perhaps, official India does not recognize the Terai problem as an essential impediment to elections. For India — a country that never fails to hold elections, even in insurgency-crippled Kashmir — the Terai problem does not qualify as an excuse for not holding an election. A stream of political delegations from India has been to Kathmandu lately to make sure that Prime Minister Koirala understands this.

The pressure on Koirala to conduct the April elections is tremendous. The last time he postponed elections, he was able to blame the Maoists. This time the Maoists have been careful not to give Koirala that opportunity. They have managed to give the impression that they want the election more badly than any other political party in Nepal. Communist Party of Nepal (UML) Chief Madhav Kumar Nepal has already hinted that the SPA should look for a change of leadership if Koirala fails to conduct the elections. If Koirala fails to deliver an April election, the international community too is likely to lose its patience with his leadership.

Next week, on February 25th, the parties are required to submit their nominations to the Election Commission. If Koirala does not deliver the kind of political concession to the Madhesi movement leaders that they feel will help them in the election, there will be no nominations from the Madhesi parties. This will effectively derail the election. If, on the other hand, Koirala is forced to postpone the elections one more time, his own political survival will be at risk. Since the stakes have risen this high, Koirala may come out of his trenches and make some uncharacteristic compromises to ensure that the elections happen. A vaguely worded agreement that is amenable to claims of victory from both sides backed up by behind the scenes electoral alliances could be a way of escaping this debacle. As complicated as that sounds, politics, as they say, is the art of the possible. If this election does not happen, the only thing that remains politically less possible going forward is Attempt #4.

Sagar Prasai is The Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Nepal.

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