Nepal’s perplexing moment of opportunity

Special report Nepal's perplexing moment of opportunity An interim constitution is in place in Kathmandu, and with the Maoists placing their arms in containers under the eye of United Nations monitors, the rebels are about to join the government. Successful in the arena of making peace, the octogenarian Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala now watches with perplexity as disaffection grips the countryside, and particularly the Tarai plains. There is deep suspicion among many that they will be left behind in the process of constitution-making, even as government administration fails to provide the minimal law and order the public has a right to expect. Something is keeping the country together, and it probably is the confidence the people still harbour that Nepal could be the showcase for representative government in Southasia.

On 16 December, those who negotiated the interim constitution pose by the dawn's early light
Future students of Nepali society will look back at the period from 2005 to 2007 with awe and bewilderment, for rarely in Southasia has 'history' evolved at such breakneck speed. A few images have come to define this fast-paced political process: the sour-faced Gyanendra announcing the royal coup on national television on 1 February 2005; public protests on Kathmandu streets during 2005-06; the text of the 12-point understanding between the Maoists and the political parties; the first public appearance of Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka 'Prachanda') in decades; the 19-day countrywide Jana Andolan; Girija Prasad Koirala's appointment as prime minister; Dahal's arrival in Kathmandu for a summit meeting with the PM by helicopter and escorted by the home minister; and, at the end of it all, political leaders and interlocutors posing for a photo-op after agreeing on a draft of the interim constitution. On 15 January, a video image, possibly the most definitive, was added to this list. More than 70 Maoists, many ex-fighters among them, entered the ornate and overcrowded central hall of the national Parliament as members of the interim legislature. It was a moment that symbolised the transformation of a rebel underground force into a mainstream 'parliamentary' political party, even if the topmost leaders chose to stay away from a legislature which they had often described as a fraud on the people, likening it to a butcher's shop. After hiccups and delays over the last few months, the image came at an important juncture, for it reassured both the Nepali people and the international community that the peace process was on track. Indeed, in the big political picture, Nepal appears to be moving in accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed on 21 November 2006, which declared the end of the Maoists' People's War and laid out a roadmap for the future. The interim constitution has been promulgated; the process of monitoring Maoist arms and fighters by the United Nations has begun; the interim government, with Maoist participation, will be in place within a few weeks; and preparations for the conduct of the Constituent Assembly elections in mid-June are on. But politics, much less history, is never as unilinear. The interim constitution, which will define Nepal's polity during the transition period, has come under heavy flak from several quarters. There is scepticism about the arms-supervision process, about whether the rebels will put down all their guns (accompanied by dark suggestions of a weapons-buying spree in the Bihar underground), and whether they have indeed shed their hierarchical, militarist mindset. Serious doubts persist about whether elections can be held in early June, as per the CPA. Excluded communities, and especially the Madhesis in the Tarai belt in the latest instance, are agitated that their concerns about electoral system in place for the assembly polls have not been heard. A group from the eastern Tarai that had fractured from the Maoists (and now has itself also broken into two) has taken up arms to fight the state for its version of 'Madhesi rights'. Political alliances are in ferment in Nepal today, as the experiments of peacemaking and state-restructuring move in parallel. There is an air of anarchy, with the erosion of the state's authority that has been progressing since the April People's Movement suddenly becoming apparent to one and all. Amidst the cacophony, there has been little public debate on the critical campaign issues that will be part and parcel of the Constituent Assembly debates on restructuring of the state – federalism versus centralism, affirmative action, electoral systems, and myriad other issues on the basis of which the various parties will have to formulate their election campaigns. There is a sense of flux, with even the well-informed unclear about what the immediate future holds. Indeed, Nepal is at a critical, and utterly confusing, moment in its political evolution, a moment that could be used to build or to destroy. Political constitutionalism
For all the progress over the past year, Nepal's political structure has been in legal limbo. Political changes since April – from the reinstatement of the House of Representatives to the flurry of historic declarations passed by it, such as the one that clipped the wings of the monarchy – have drawn their legitimacy from the Jana Andolan of April, and a consensual interpretation of what it represented. But formal government systems require more than an abstract expression of popular will. While the Constituent Assembly has the mandate to write a constitution for a 'new Nepal', political actors clearly realised the need for a document that would award the present situation legitimacy, draw the Maoists into the mainstream, lay out guidelines for the transition period, and outline a roadmap for the assembly elections.
After intense wrangling and deliberation, the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) agreed on an interim constitution draft in the middle of December 2006. Among other provisions, the detailed statute dealt with the composition of the interim legislature, the rules during the transition period, and the electoral system for the Constituent Assembly. It was decided that the interim legislature would include 330 members – 209 from the present Parliament, 73 new Maoist members, and 48 individuals from civil society, a number eventually split up between the eight parties including the Maoists. It took a month for the Parliament to promulgate the draft – a delay explained by the lack of preparedness on the part of the state and the United Nations to institutionalise arrangements for arms management so soon, as well as the criticism from various quarters of the interim constitution and the manner in which it was framed. Strikingly though, the draft was adopted in its original form by the House, without taking into account these concerns. The whip was used by the party leaders to force through the document without compromising, a decision they may live to regret with the instability in Tarai heightening the last week of January 2007. One major criticism of the statute is that it violates a cardinal principle of liberal democracy – the separation of powers. Under the present system, the executive in command of both the legislature and judiciary. The prime minister plays a key role in the appointment of judges, and even swears in the chief justice of the Supreme Court. This sparked outrage in legal circles, but to no avail other than to alert the public to the dangers inherent in the interim constitution. The suggestion that a three- or four-member council perform the functions of the head of state was ignored, and that role was also given to the prime minister. Additionally, the interim constitution does not have a provision for the removal of the prime minister by a House vote. Some observers suspect that this move was engineered by the Maoists, who see themselves as potential contenders for the prime ministerial position if the frail 85–year–old Girija Prasad Koirala decides to let go of the reins. Indeed, Koirala himself has expressed concern in private and public over the supreme powers vested in his office by the interim statute. "The April movement was for democracy, not for a totalitarian system. We have created a new dictator to negate the old dictator," argues journalist Yubaraj Ghimire. Others, however, are not as worried. While agreeing in principle with the criticism, political scientist Krishna Hachhethu points out that it was the need to marginalise the king, and keep a check on the judiciary – "a conservative institution" and "an ally of the monarch" – that resulted in making the prime minister all-powerful. Besides, there are enough differences within the disparate eight-party alliance to keep in check any hegemonistic tendencies, say others. Political analyst (and columnist for this magazine) C K Lal points to the exceptional circumstances in the country: "An interim arrangement is by definition meant to tackle an emergency-type situation. In such times, normal theories of political science may not necessarily fit in." But there are other problems as well. Some analysts claim that the statute emplaces a monopoly of the eight parties, including the Maoists, over the entire political system. This is reflected, for example, in rules put in place for registration of new parties, whereby only those parties that can present 10,000 signatures and that agree with the preamble of the interim constitution will be recognised by the Election Commission. "This is the constitution of the eight parties, not of the people," says Sushil Pyakurel, a leading human-rights and political activist. "In a post-revolution phase, there is often a tendency to see all opponents as counter-revolutionaries, and that is what is happening right now. The eight parties never had the mandate to draw such a detailed constitution and dictate terms. We must be careful." Indeed, the eight parties seem to have created some problems for themselves and the country by formulating a detailed interim constitution. The elaborate nature of the draft has undermined faith in the Constituent Assembly as the proper venue for resolving issues. Groups left out of the consultative process, and whose demands have not been addressed, suspect that the interim constitution will be presented as fait accompli and will form the core basis of any future text, in which case they will lose out. The fact that the interim period may last as long as three years, if not more, adds to the worries of these groups. Some observers suspect that it is the Maoists who pushed for a long text, for they are unsure about whether they will be able to muster the required numbers in the Constituent Assembly to have constitutional clauses of their choice.
The lack of broad-based consultation is most clearly reflected in the fact that all vital elements were essentially decided by Koirala and Dahal and their deputies, with other leaders merely acting as rubber-stamps. It may have been impossible to negotiate the draft constitution by committee, but it is also a fact that in focusing only on bringing the Maoists in from the jungle, the festering unhappiness of numerous communities around the country was not paid heed to. Despite its flaws, some of which can be corrected in the interim legislature, the constitution does serve the purpose for which it seems to have been framed – it is an interim document meant to integrate the Maoists into the political system, legally sidelining the monarchy, and providing the basis for future developments. Politicians argue that the fact that disparate political forces could agree on a common text is in itself a remarkable achievement. Indeed, the text does accommodate divergent interests, which also possibly explains its detailed nature. But there is no denying that there is one problem inherent in the elaborate statute, which has the potential to set society spinning out of control: the document's lack of 'inclusion' and failure to recognise the plurality of the populace. Madhesi cauldron
Across the political spectrum of Madhes – inhabited by communities of the Tarai plains – the anger is palpable. If MPs from the Nepal Sadbhavana Party (Anandi Devi), representing Tarai aspirations, presented their objections to the interim constitution in Parliament, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, a recently formed political outfit, burned copies of the document outside. The Janatantrik Tarai Mukti Morcha, a Maoist splinter group led by Jai Prakash Goit, continues its armed rebellion in the south of the country. A breakaway faction of the JTMM, led by Jwala Singh, has embarked on a separate armed campaign. The more radical of these groups have the stated aim of creating an 'independent' Tarai, a slogan which is seen by most as a bargaining chip in order to get the hill-centric Nepali political structure to at long last listen to the Tarai people as full citizens rather than half-citizens. While many of these groups do not necessarily have a coherent set of demands, the common theme is the exploitation of Madhesis by the mid-hill elite throughout history. In the present context, two objections come to the fore: the absence of any specific reference to federalism in the interim constitution, and a blatantly unfair and unrepresentative electoral model for the Constituent Assembly. Excluded communities in Nepal, especially the hill ethnic groups and Madhesis, blame the Bahun-Chhetri-dominated Kathmandu-centric nature of the state for the history of suppression they have undergone. While the statute does make a reference to the need to restructure the unitary model of the state, the need for a federal system has not been explicitly recognised, which has angered groups representing these communities. The fact is that this is merely an interim draft, and the debate on federalism has not yet even begun to take into account the myriad complexities of the country. It is indeed the Constituent Assembly that will deliberate on the specificities of the federal structure, but this argument does not go down well with these groups. "The entire political and constitutional system has been changed in this document. Why do the leaders remember the Constituent Assembly only when it comes to the issue of federalism? They clearly don't want to commit themselves to devolution or share power with the regions," says Anil Kumar Jha, a leader of the Nepal Sadbhavana Party (A). While a firmer reference to a federal structure may be enough to assuage the discontented, what is proving to be more contentious is the electoral system for the Constituent Assembly. At present, the CPA and the interim constitution provide for 425 seats in the assembly, with a mixed electoral system. 205 members are to be elected on the basis of the 'first past the post' (FPTP) system from the same electoral constituencies, which were in place for the earlier Parliament; another 204 members are to be elected according to proportional representation (PR), wherein parties will nominate additional members to the assembly according to the percentage of votes they poll. Another 16 individuals, possibly representing the intelligentsia and other groups, are to be nominated to the assembly. Many of the smaller groups, along with some larger parties – including, claim its leaders, the CPN (Maoist) – were initially demanding a completely PR-based system. This would, they argued, facilitate the inclusion of minorities in the constitution-making exercise, as such a system is more conducive for parties that are in a position to garner a sizeable vote share at a broader level, but not to win in constituencies on their own. The system could also have required the major parties to make their lists of candidates inclusive and representative of population groups. The choice of the mixed electoral system has thrown up two broad sets of objections. Analysts point out that in a context in which parties do not have a good track record of representing and moderating aspirations of different groups, it may have been more prudent to introduce a completely population-based proportional representation system in the first place. Groups representing Dalits, women, the hill–ethnic Janajatis as well as Madhesis are concerned about the selection of candidates under both systems. They are demanding an equitable share not only during the ticket-distribution stage for the FPTP system for 205 seats, but also want the parties to commit themselves to a list that is representative of diverse population groups – and prioritises the marginalised communities – under the PR system. In their public statements, the parties claim they are willing to do so, and even to frame rules in this regard in consultation with the Election Commission.
But it is the second objection that seems more difficult to manage. Madhesi groups, as well as many independent observers, have always felt that the present demarcation of constituencies violates the principle of equitable population representation, given that the number of people in electoral districts in the Tarai far outnumbers those in the majority of hill constituencies. For instance, in some constituencies in the south, more than 100,000 people send in one candidate to the erstwhile Parliament, while in Manang, in the upper reaches, there are less than 10,000 people in an entire constituency. "This has always been a recipe for Pahadi [hill] domination," argues Bijay Kanta Karna, a Madhesi activist. "It just shows the vote of every Nepali is not given equal value. And the Madhesis bear the brunt of this discrimination. The proposed electoral model, with the same constituencies, will only perpetuate the discrimination." In addition, the lack of fairness is compounded because the very parties who win through the FPTP system are also to choose the members for the 204 proportional representation seats. The solution to this quagmire could entail going back to the table and redrawing all constituencies in a more equitable manner. Others suggest that a positive 'gerrymandering' of the electoral districts of the Tarai belt, or adding more constituencies in the plains, might be able to provide a quicker way out. There is another possibility – that of adding more seats under the PR list, which would be reserved for communities that have low representation among the elected members. While some bigger parties, especially the Nepali Congress, appear unwilling, it may make sense to go back and even examine the possibility of a 100-percent proportional system for the entire election exercise, which could give more space to smaller outfits. rather than have a mixed FPTP and PR system. The proportional system has its problems, including the fact that people do not get to choose specific individuals, the decision being left largely to the choices of party bosses. Irrespective of what model would be best, the political actors must recognise that there is an extremely urgent need to think about the issue, look at various options, and change the electoral system. To claim, as some leaders are prone to do, that these issues will be discussed in the Constituent Assembly is to miss the point, for the idea is to ensure all communities feel represented and have a say in the assembly in the first place. But considering alternative models seems like an academic exercise at present, given the eight-party government's intransigence. Major political leaders are clearly unwilling to change the electoral system, whether for fear of losing a handle on (from their perspective) a tried-and-tested system, or for fear of opening up a Pandora's Box. Says Jhalanath Khanal, a senior leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and a key negotiator in the peace process: "We do recognise the inequity inherent in the present demarcation, which should be changed at some point. But we also need to stick with our commitment of holding elections by mid-June, since a delay might encourage reactionary forces. So we have decided not to change the electoral system for now, and go ahead with what is already agreed upon." What complicates the situation further is that the ferment in the Tarai often has more to do with the memory of being historically suppressed than with substantive demands. There is also the all-too-familiar 'nationalist' dimension – some Kathmandu commentators claim that India must be playing a part in inciting trouble in the Tarai, as a strategy to undercut Maoist influence in the belt. Sources in the Indian Embassy, however, deny this claim. "Look, Nepal is proving to be a rare success case for Indian diplomacy in the region," says one embassy official. "Our entire strategy is aimed at creating a stable neighbourhood. Why would we incite trouble so close to our border?" Others flag off the possibility of a royalist hand in stirring trouble. It is indeed possible that the palace may take advantage of the instability, as could some renegade Indian intelligence agency or Hindutva groups intent on the retention of a 'Hindu kingdom' – howsoever impossible that may seem to most. But the issue is fundamentally domestic, and will need to be addressed in Kathmandu and the towns of the Tarai – not by pointing fingers at New Delhi or the Narayanhiti Palace. Beneath the clutter and noise of the ever-increasing number of splinter groups lies anger about real and perceived discrimination, accumulated over years, which is being tapped by outfits at a time of political assertiveness all around.
While hill ethnicities had found their voice since the introduction of democracy in 1990, the Tarai people had remained quiet and felt progressively stifled. When they realised that they had gotten a raw deal yet again with the flaws in the interim constitution – which would prevent fair representation and deprive them of a chance to shape the future state structure – these groups rose up to assert themselves. The assertion is indeed a positive sign, as it is important that the marginalised speak up and claim their rightful share in all spheres. But unfortunately, there is a danger of it descending into politics of violence. This is partly because the political culture is such that government does not seem to respond to moderates, and also becasue of growing perception among some groups that they have to raise the gun to be heard. This is politically naïve and dangerous, besides being morally questionable. One can only dread the chain reaction such a mindset can potentially set off if discontent groups – from the far-westerners and Dalits of the hills and plains to Tharus – come to believe violence is the way to go. The present flux can also be attributed to the fact that the problems are just at an airing phase in Nepal. The extreme diversity of the populace and the growing identity-based assertion have created complexities – as soon as there is a question of power-sharing, the need for cohabitation becomes obvious. The present system is finding it difficult, for a host of reasons, to accommodate these divergent aspirations. The fact that all this is happening even as the process of bringing the Maoists into mainstream politics is just taking shape restricts the space available to the state to act. The state seems to have little clue about how to politically manage these sentiments, though there are reports of back-channel communications with the armed groups of the Tarai. The fact that these militant groups are offshoots of the Maoists has not helped matters. The former rebels are reported to be most resistant to the idea of the government engaging with either or both factions of the JTMM and thereby giving them any sort of legitimacy. Senior Maoist leaders have been heard advocating stringent action by security forces against the JTMM, and Dahal has rebuffed the idea of talking to these groups by dismissing them as 'criminals'. Ironically, the entire Tarai issue has had the unintended consequence of making the Maoists look and act a part of the establishment and state structure, which was in a sense the aim of the present process. The challenge of running a country such as Nepal, much more difficult than spouting rhetoric unaccountably and behind the barrel of the gun, has hit the former rebels straight-up in the face. It is clear that such a strategy would only exacerbate the situation. What is needed instead is active political engagement. Notes C K Lal: "The government just needs to listen to all groups. If they listen, they will realise that no major party has a Madhesi chairperson or secretary; that out of the 500 or so political appointments since the Jana Andolan, less than one percent have been Madhesis. Right now, the situation is at the level of grievances. If not heeded, it will translate into demands, which will soon become conditional and then turn non-negotiable. The state must remember that no one is willing to die for a bright future, but there is no dearth of people willing to die for a bleak past." After a decade of senseless violence, it is time that custodians of the Nepali state – now including the gentrifying leaders of the CPN (Maoist) – learn that lesson, and address the anger that is spreading across the plains. Interim challenges
Even as the Tarai emerges as the centre of attention, it is important to remember that a peace process is still in progress in Kathmandu and beyond. The interim period, which will see an innovative political arrangement with Maoist participation, is expected to throw up its own set of challenges. All eyes will be on the Maoists, and their transformation from a rebel force to a part of the state structure, which will require reconciling the radical demands of their frontal organisations with their role in government (including the post of 'senior deputy prime minister'). The fact that top leaders of the party, including Dahal, ideologue Baburam Bhattarai and military commander Ram Bahadur Thapa ('Badal') have not joined the interim legislature may provide an alarming clue to Maoist strategy. With the top leaders outside, the Maoists clearly plan to play a dual role, by being in the government as a ruling force as well as on the streets as a radical opposition. While there may be some differences in the number of arms given up by the erstwhile rebels and the government's own estimation of the number, the process of arms monitoring is nevertheless expected to move smoothly. For something that was considered the major hurdle till a month ago, 'arms management' is now regarded as a problem that has been surmounted, just as the Indian 'go-ahead' for United Nations involvement is no longer talked about even though New Delhi's acquiescence was seen as all-important till the middle of 2006.
The expectation that 'arms management' will be smooth has fundamentally to do with the fact that the Maoists – at all levels, though with a difference in degree – have come to terms with the need to engage in popular politics. Reports that the Maoists are sending in newer and younger recruits to the cantonments, while keeping soldiers of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) outside, may have an element of truth to them. But it is important to keep things in perspective. As Deepak Thapa, a scholar on the Maoist movement, explains, "There is little difference between political and military cadre in such parties. Many PLA members are out because they will be used for party campaigning during the Constituent Assembly elections." The assurance regarding the disarmament process also has to do with confidence in the involvement of the United Nations in the monitoring. The UN team, which is headed by long-time international peace-maker Ian Martin, former head of Amnesty International, is expected not to make compromises on international standards of disarmament, nor to allow the Maoists to take shortcuts. The other challenge is the weakening capacity, reach and authority of the state. There is currently an air of anarchy in the country, with groups blocking roads and bringing the country to a halt at the slightest pretext. These groups have various demands, and believe that this is the time, with the state in a relatively weak position, to make their demands heard. Part of the problem can also be ascribed to the continuing demoralised state of the Nepal Police, which does not have the political backing to take action for the sake of maintaining a base level of law and order. Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula, who is seen to have acted admirably in the difficult task of ensuring the 'safe-landing' of the Maoists, is given failing grades for his inability to maintain a semblance of administration in the country. This has resulted in more lawlessness than there might otherwise have been. Many observers are worried about the anarchy. "There is a total erosion of the authority of the state. And civil society, with its unreasonable demands on the state, is only pushing it further towards death," says journalist Ghimire, referring to the populism resorted to by many civil-society faces, with some of the prominent ones being perceived as apologists for the Maoists. The lack of a minimum level of state administration has political scientist Hachhethu concerned as well: "In the past year, our big success has been the transformation of the Maoists into a mainstream force; our biggest failure has been in the realm of governance." The frail health of the octogenarian Koirala is also a major source of concern. The prime minister has weak lungs from 45 years of chain-smoking, and is extremely low on physical energy and stamina. What after Girija? is a question doing the rounds not only in Kathmandu political circles but across the country. Koirala has indeed emerged as the tallest leader over the past few years – standing up to Gyanendra's designs, getting all parliamentary parties on one platform, becoming indispensable to Dahal and other Maoist leaders in their movement towards mainstream politics, and handling the delicate interim phase with what became the trademark astuteness of a near-recluse. But Koirala has centralised power in his own person and has no known lieutenant to which he can hand over the reins. What would happen to the process if he were to be incapacitated? While there is bound to be a succession struggle, analysts are confident it will not now derail the process. Thanks to Koirala himself, the difficult phase of getting the Maoists on board is over, and foundations for the political evolution ahead have already been laid. As it has done ever since it facilitated talks between Dahal, Koirala and others in 2003, and whether anyone likes it or not, India is expected to play an important role in ensuring that the situation remains on track in case of turbulence generated by Koirala's withdrawal. The decision-making mechanisms have thus far included a cast of characters, and a more collective form of leadership can take charge and push the process forward. There is apprehension – with good reason, given past experiences – that the king, in alliance with the army, may try some other tricks to subvert the present process. But the cohabitation of an opportunist army and an unconstitutional monarch has probably seen the end of its day. The top generals of the Nepal Army have of late come to understand that the king can protect neither their personal interests nor the army's institutional concerns. Furthermore, officers in what remains even today at best a semi-professional army have become too used to plum United Nations blue-helmet assignments to risk one more misadventure. Within the army, there is a substantial presence of officers, especially at the mid- to lower levels, who are not ensconced in the royal network and will no longer play along with any future royal assertiveness. Koirala's decision to appoint Rukmangat Katuwal as army chief – despite his role in promoting Gyanendra's designs during the year and a half of autocracy through pseudonymous articles in local papers – is widely suspected to be a ploy on the part of the prime minister to keep the generals from derailing the peace process at the time when they may have feared for their perks and privileges. It is crucial, however, that the political parties remain vigilant as far as the rightist reactionaries are concerned. This is true primarily because Gyanendra has shown repeatedly his inability to understand the writing on the wall, and he may yet feel he can make another bid for power when anarchy takes over the land. In the months leading up to the Constituent Assembly elections, it is natural that the competition for political space at the ground level will take on increasingly confrontational overtones. How this dynamic is kept from affecting the unity between the topmost party echelons will be critical in ensuring whether Nepal stays on the peace track. "There is bound to be competition at all levels, but what we will witness is more partnership with less conflict at the top, and less cooperation and more conflict at the ground level," says political scientist Hachhethu. Others believe that this inter–party competition already exists and will only become more civilised within the framework of a healthy multiparty system, in which the Maoists will be a recognised part of the political structure. In the scramble, all parties, including the Maoists if they want to emerge as a popular force, will have to rely on argumentation and dialogue. And for all their differences, parties know that anyone seen as playing the spoiler in the peace process will lose credibility and support, perhaps irreparably. The biggest challenge will be to keep on the rails a political process that has already achieved so much – relieving the Nepali people of a king's autocracy, a ruthless military and a brutal insurgency. The next step towards the larger goal of restructuring the Nepali state is the election of the Constituent Assembly, slated for mid-June. The alliances, debates and issues around the polls will shape Nepal's future. Sambidhan Sabha
In mid-winter, amidst swirling fog infused with a heavy dose of smog, Kathmandu Valley is rife with speculation about whether the elections can indeed happen on that schedule. Some believe it is logistically impossible to hold polls so soon, given the enormity of the administrative exercise–by-laws need to be enacted, local election-support committees are not yet established, officials and even political workers have not returned to the villages, fresh electoral rolls have to be prepared, citizenship certificates have not been distributed to a large section of the populace, and security forces are not yet in place. Security forces of course means the police, because the Nepal Army, with its experience in elections past, is disqualified for its recent adventures. There are others who believe that if there is political will, the logistical issues can be surmounted with relative ease. "If the government decides to devote even 10 to 15 percent of its employees to the task of election preparation, it can definitely be organised," emphasises Hachhethu. "The three main political parties have nationwide networks which can be easily activated, and they can help in the task of voter education. Add to this the advances made in the realm of science and technology, especially electronic voting machines. June is feasible." More than logistics, the timing of the polls will depend on the political will of the key players. If the Nepali Congress, CPN (UML) and the Maoists decide that they do want the elections in June, administrative hiccups can surely be overcome. Though the leaders of all three profess their commitment to the agreed timetable, the capital's political grapevine is filled with conflicting versions of the intentions and calculations of these parties. Some sources, involved with negotiations between Prime Minister Koirala and Dahal, say that both leaders are indeed firm on holding the elections soon, but for different reasons. Koirala is keen because of two different factors – he feels that the Nepali Congress is in a strong position to win, and also that a successful completion of the Constituent Assembly elections will firmly cement his political legacy in the history of modern Nepal as the person who stabilised the society and rid it of autocracy and 'revolution'. Dahal, on the other hand, hopes that the elections will make the Maoists a fully legitimate force. He also knows that prolonging the interim period will leave his cadre edgy, besides making politically difficult the task of managing the divergent ethnic aspirations that the Maoists encouraged through the 'People's War'. According to this school of thought, the CPN (UML), as the main left party, would also be keen to go in for the polls because it retains the strongest base among its committed cadre, who are ready and willing to come out in force now that the gun is in the process of being removed from the political arena. But there are other observers who are equally convinced that all parties – except perhaps the CPN (UML) – will be open to the idea of pushing the election dates as soon as the Maoists join the interim government. The Maoists would be willing to do so because they will continue to have a share in the power structure to a level not plausible, according to these observers, as per their popular base. Delaying the assembly elections would give the CPN (Maoist) time to transform the party structure from a militarist to a political one. At present, anecdotal information from the districts of Nepal indicate that the Maoists command a fairly limited vote share, contrary to the publicity they have received and the bravado the rebel leaders exhibit. Most importantly, if Girija Prasad Koirala is truly keen on saving a ceremonial monarchy – which he has thus far advocated – and feels the country would not vote that way in the present situation, he may be amenable to pushing elections to a later date. This would be based on the expectation that the acceptance of the king as a constitutional force will be greater if more time is allowed to lapse – since the appearance of anarchy will lead to some having second thoughts about the institution, and the memory of Gyanendra's excesses will have receded. The timing of the polls will also be determined, to some extent, by the shape and strength of alliances. In Nepal's decade-long democrtic interlude, the most unlikely coalitions have been formed, with the result that very few observers today are willing to hazard a guess about which way political equations are headed. It is possible that the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led Nepali Congress (Democratic) will merge with its parent party, Koirala's Nepali Congress. There is also talk of a republican front, composed of the left parties. If the left vote is split, the beneficiary is bound to be the Congress, which has prompted a few left activists to exert pressure on the leadership of the UML and the Maoists to forge some kind of an understanding. Despite narrow differences between the two parties at the policy level (the Maoists having given up the use of the gun), such an alliance goes against political wisdom. This is because these left parties are ultimately competing for the same political space and have a bitter history that cannot be shelved this early – the memory of violence by Maoists against UML cadre being still raw. Some insiders point to an unlikely behind-the-scenes understanding that is showing signs of emerging – that between the Nepali Congress and the Maoists. The Maoists need the NC, for they realise that partnership with the Congress is the only way to achieve international legitimacy and credibility. The Congress, for its part, sees the Maoists as an effective counterpoise to undercut the political base of its main electoral rival, the CPN (UML). However, despite the permutations and combinations being worked out in different party offices and speculation elsewhere, it is entirely possible that the main parties may opt to go it alone and test their strength. The more important question is not whether the Constituent Assembly elections are held in June, but the implications of the polls not being held as per schedule. Nepal has not had a particularly pleasant experience with extended interim periods, especially if one looks back to the 1950s, when the country saw a decade of instability and royal interventions – this was also the period during which the promise for elections to a Constituent Assembly was never fulfilled. Instead, there was political regression amidst the growing anarchy. "If polls are not held on time, it will shake the people's confidence in the present process, and give rise to suspicion about the motives of the parties," says journalist Ameet Dhakal. "With all parties claiming to be the true representatives of the Nepali janata at present, the sooner their strength is put to test, the better for the polity." It is also important to remember that the interim state has neither a truly representative legislature, nor a democratically elected government. The interim constitution is flawed and lacking in some basic values of liberal democracy, such as independence of judiciary and separation of powers, and so the longer it remains in place the more harm it may do. The draft was put together as a way to bring the Maoists out of the jungle. It does not incorporate the crucial values of 'inclusion', which the Constituent Assembly needs now to address. This is why, some observers argue, it is vital not to postpone the assembly polls. If that were to happen, they would have to be rescheduled according to the Nepali climato-cultural calendar – after the monsoon and following the Dashain-Tihar festivals of mid-autumn. At the same time, there are voices that point out that the aim is not only to have polls for the sake of having polls, but to make the process as inclusive as possible. In the present context – in which several groups are unhappy with the electoral system and other provisions, with some even threatening to disrupt polls – it may make more sense to first create a more conducive environment, even if this means a delayed schedule. "If the eight parties decide to go in for elections without addressing the concerns of protesting groups, it will not be a free and fair poll, and would give rise to future conflicts," warns activist Sushil Pyakurel. It is when the polity overcomes this broad set of challenges – flaws in the interim constitution, trouble in the Tarai, political competition and wrangling, the continuous process of Maoist transformation, preparations for the polls – that Nepal will finally move towards a Constituent Assembly. The logistics seem manageable; the Maoists are not about to opt out; and the trouble in the Tarai as well as the disgruntlement of so many communities would be addressed if the eight parties were to agree on either a full proportional election, or a formula to make up for the non-representation in the FPTP 205 seats – either by reconfiguring constituencies or remedying the gap in their allocation of the 204 proportional seats. This seems a small 'price' to pay for the opportunity to build a new future for the country. And that new future will be built when the assembly takes decisions on certain key issues – the status of monarchy, the nature of the federal system if it is to be a federal one, positive discrimination and what kind in a country of minorities, security-sector reform, the electoral system for the long term, economic and foreign (including neighbourhood) policy – that warrant and necessitate considerable thought and preparation. It is indeed a perplexing moment in Nepal's history, with a cacophony of voices and perspectives reflecting the confusion that characterises this unique Southasian peace process. But it is a rare and beautiful opportunity as well, where the populace and their political representatives can look forward to shaping a country of their choice. More history will be made, and more images captured.
       Prashant Jha is contributing editor of Himal Southasian based in Kathmandu

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