Nepal’s New Mandate for the Constituent Assembly

2013_CA_Election_of_Nepal_07Nepal has been in the midst of an extended political transition for nearly half a decade. Following the 1996-2006 civil war, the monarchy was abolished and then in 2008, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (the Maoists) emerged as the largest political party in the country’s first-ever elections for parliament, called the Constituent Assembly (CA). The CA’s main task was to promulgate a new constitution for Nepal, but after repeated attempts, the body failed to deliver. Thus in May 2012, the CA was dissolved, and efforts began to form a multiparty government under a caretaker Prime Minister, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. But given that Bhattarai came from the Maoist party, those negotiations ultimately broke down, as the Maoist party continued to exercise undue political influence. This led to the formation of a technocratic government, charged with organizing fresh elections for a new CA, which were originally scheduled for November 2012. In the meantime, a hardline faction split from the Maoist party, which opposed holding those second CA elections. That fact, together with confusion regarding the mandate of the technocratic government, delayed the elections for a year. But on November 19, 2013, Nepal finally held its second democratic parliamentary elections.

Despite speculation to the contrary, these elections were deemed largely free and fair by almost all national and international observers. Moreover, in the face of bombings, a national strike, and other violent tactics organized by the hardline Maoist splinter faction to intimidate citizens and political parties, voter turnout was a stunning 75 percent. Most surprising have been the results of the election. To the shock of the majority of voters, analysts, and especially the Maoist party itself, the results of these elections, both in first-past-the-post voting and proportional representation have moved Nepal’s politics marginally towards right. The Nepali Congress, the country’s oldest political party and considered relatively centrist, has won around 34 percent of the seats in the new CA. Similarly, the Communist Party of Nepal (also called the Unified Marxist-Leninist, or CPN-UML), which despite its name is actually considered slightly left of the center, came in second with around 30 percent of the seats. Meanwhile, the Maoists, the country’s dominant Communist party, secured only around 14 percent of the seats, which is a small fraction of its previous share of 37 percent in the 2008 CA election. Conservative parties, including monarchists and Hindu nationalists, won around 4 percent of the seats, with another 11 percent of seats going to various left of the center parties. These percentages are calculated without considering an additional 26 seats that will be nominated by the new Cabinet of Ministers, and then added to the current 575 seats to form the full assembly of 601 members.

The Maoists, who have now gone from being the largest party in the last CA, together with ethnic-based parties from the country’s south (who also lost ground), are not happy with the results. They are claiming that the elections were rigged and that the results should be “re-evaluated.” The Maoists have gone so far as to announce that the party will not participate in the CA if the results are not re-evaluated. This is seen as yet another tactic to divert the agenda from the failure of the head of the Maoists as a party leader, and to try to bargain for a larger role in the CA despite their loss.

At the same time, looking at the current mandate of the Nepali Congress party, while it is the largest party in the CA, it still does not have enough seats to form a 51 percent majority. Thus Congress will have to lead the government in coalition with other parties, as well as to lead the process of writing and passing a new constitution. The CA needs to finalize the constitution within two years, and then run the government for four years. Nepali Congress has had a reputation for being pro-business and economic liberalization. However, power conflicts, personality clashes and rifts within the party are very strong. Signs of political bickering are already emerging within the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML.

The people of Nepal are anticipating that a new government will be sworn in within a month’s time. Nepali Congress, as the mandated leader in the CA, has made public statements that it would like to work towards creating a consensus government that includes the Maoists. But the possibility of such a consensus government seems bleak. More likely is that the largest two parties, Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, will form a joint government. If this scenario works out, many expect a relatively stable political situation and the possibility that a constitution is actually promulgated within the stipulated time period. However, the strategy of the Maoists will be critical to the overall process. As the political discourse changes daily, it is still premature to predict what the Maoists will settle for. Will they accept the mandate of the elections and adhere to accepted democratic norms, or will they come up with new non-democratic tactics to win political strength? This is yet to be seen.

Robin Sitoula is the Executive Director of Samriddhi, the Prosperity Foundation

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