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Is Nepali Political Transition Getting Back on Track?

February 20, 2013

The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly (CA) in May 2012 has left Nepali politics in a deep impasse over the formation of an “election government.” The opposition has been refusing to go into an election until a broad-based government is formed under the leadership of Nepali Congress (NC), but the current prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, from United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has refused to step down, calling the NC-led coalition to join his government instead. All that could change with the parties now agreeing to a chief justice-led election government with technocrats in the cabinet. The parties announced an agreement to that effect Tuesday night and were negotiating with the chief justice on the details of the mandate until late Wednesday night. It is still uncertain if Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi will accept the offer, but if the parties give him adequate autonomy and a firm commitment to cooperate, it appears that an election government may indeed take shape in Nepal later this week.

While the formation of an “independent” election government will pave the way to a fresh election, actually conducting the election before monsoon rains start in July will be a challenge. Nepal decided to modernize its voter roll two years ago and embarked on a biometric voter registration drive. Since the Election Commission of Nepal (ECN) by law can only register voters with citizenship cards, at least 4 million voters are missing from the new register. While a proportion of the missing voters may possess the citizenship cards and may have missed the registration due to apathy, a majority of them do not have citizenship cards. Because of accessibility constraints and onerous procedures, ensuring that all eligible voters are able to first acquire a citizenship certificate and then manage to register themselves in the voter roll in about three months or less looks very difficult. Similar is the state of preparation for the ECN’s plans to introduce electronic voter machines; within three months or so approximately 20,000 machines have to be procured, deployed, and kept in functioning order by trained officials in a country with a rugged terrain and bad infrastructure. The ECN can revert back to the old voter roll and printed ballots, but even that does not happen without bringing its printing press back to order and deploying a massive registration updating drive. That too takes time.

Beyond time and technical preparations, there are two political forces that are marginalized in the current negotiations whose next moves could affect the election environment. First is the break-away hardliner faction of the UCPN (Maoist) led by Comrade Kiran called the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist. The CPN-Maoist broke away from the mother party in the aftermath of the dissolution of the CA in May 2012, accusing the mother party of orchestrating “revisionist dissolution of the revolution” and “embracing capitalist democracy.” Made up of war-era ideologues and hardline militants, the breakaway faction may represent about 30 percent of the Maoist party, although estimates vary. If this faction stays away from the election, it is likely to make an attempt to disrupt the election, to the extent it can. It already called for a nationwide bandh (general shutdown) in protest of the plans to set up a chief justice-led interim government. If the party decides to take part in the election, on the other hand, a bitter turfwar between UCPN (Maoist) and CPN-Maoist will ensue in the run-up to the election, muddying the election environment.

The second political force to watch for is the coalition of indigenous ethnic communities that are organized outside of major political parties. The dissolved CA had reserved seats for different ethnic constituencies as well as women in higher numbers than those allocated through open, first-past-the-post elections.  This had allowed an unprecedented presence of women and ethnic community representatives in the CA. These constituencies are not confident that the next CA-Parliament will follow suit on the issue of women and minority representation, and their doubts are well-founded. Information trickling out from the on-going negotiations suggests that the next CA will have at least 20 percent fewer reserved seats than the previous one, and the cut will come exclusively from proportional reserved seats. Key ethnic communities feel that their lowered representation will eventually undercut the agenda of federalism in Nepal – an issue that has remained at the core of their discontent with the Nepali state. While it is unlikely that this constituency will take the route of the CPN-Maoist and try to disrupt the election, it is capable of under-cutting and questioning the legitimacy of the elections.

Such concerns aside, a fresh election is the only way out of Nepal’s current political stalemate. Promulgating a new constitution, initiating a credible transitional justice process, and integrating former combatants into the state security forces were the three major tasks of the peace process initiated after the Maoist insurgency ended in 2006. Of these, the process of integrating the former combatants is the only task that has been completed.  The Nepali political transition, slated to be completed in two years per the Comprehensive Peace Accord of 2006, has come only so far in six years. Any further delay is not desirable, and this breakthrough on an election government may just help the country get back on track.

Sagar Prasai is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Nepal. He can be reached at sprasai@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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