Country out on a limb

22 November, a Thursday, was to have been the date of deliverance for the people of Nepal. That was when the country would have gone in for the Constituent Assembly elections, and the restructuring of state and the wiping-out of historical injustices would have begun. Already twice postponed for logistical reasons, there was every possibility this time that the elections would be held. Key representatives of the restive Tarai population and the indigenous-ethnic peoples had made compromises on the promised 'mixed' electoral system, and the hope was that the hundred mutinies erupting all over the country would be addressed through sober reflection during the Constituent Assembly debates. Nepal was being privileged with the opportunity to write a new constitution: to learn from its own history as well as that of the region and the world, in order to produce a statute that would put a stamp on both the peace process and a democratic, representative, inclusive future.

But the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) pulled the electoral rug from under the people. Coming to the conclusion that they were not going to have a respectable showing at the polls, the Maoists first quit the government, then threatened to disrupt the election process. Ultimately, the leadership exploited the understanding of the other political parties that – as things stood – the peace process would not survive the Maoist departure from the polls. And so, the polity entered a state of suspended animation.

To press their advantage, the Maoists went outside the dictates of the interim constitution to call a special session of the interim parliament in mid-November, where they tabled two motions. The first was to abolish the monarchy and declare a republic immediately, through the interim parliament. The second proposed that a full-proportional electoral system be applied, instead of the mixed system. (The mixed system would have had half of the Constituent Assembly members elected through standard first-past-the-post candidatures, and half through a proportional system wherein the parties would receive seats in proportion to the votes they garnered countrywide, which would be allocated according to the proportion of communities in the population.) Both of these draft resolutions went against the agreement inherent in the interim constitution, as agreed to by the Maoists – the decision on the monarchy was to have been taken at the very first meeting of the elected Assembly, while the mixed system had been a workable compromise reflecting the push and pull of various political forces.

Of course, the Constituent Assembly itself has been a core Maoist demand for a decade, and formed the bedrock of the 12-point agreement of November 2005 that brought them into aboveground politics in the first place. The Assembly elections were also truly the mandate of the People's Movement of April 2006. But by November 2007, the Maoists were bent on reneging on all of their promises, and determined not to go in for the elections. They were searching for any way to scuttle the electoral ship, largely due to the simple fact that they would come out of the elections with only a fraction of the power they wield now, with 83 seats in the interim parliament and equal to the other two large parties in the house.

The Maoists justified their change of stance on the agreement regarding the monarchy by saying that the "objective situation had changed" and that the monarchy retained the power to squash the people's aspirations. As for the new demand for proportional elections, that was an attempt simultaneously to curry favour with the various indigenous-ethnic and Tarai communities, and to ensure that the elections were postponed indefinitely because of the complexities that would arise while putting such a system in place amidst enormous communitarian tension.

Special-session shenanigans
Interestingly, in the faux special session of the interim parliament – itself a nominated body meant only to provide a cover for the Constituent Assembly process, and not to take other substantive decisions – the Maoists achieved a 'legislative' victory of sorts. They traded drafts with the CPN (Unified Marxist-Leninist), accepting a weakened draft on the republic themselves, while getting the UML to accept the Maoist draft on full-proportional elections. This was a devastating blow to the peace-and-democracy process in more ways than one, even though the resolution on the full-proportional system came across as a legitimate document adopted by the majority of the house – the UML and Maoists together, but minus the Nepali Congress. Changes in the interim constitution require a two-thirds majority, and so, for implementation, the full-proportional resolution would still need to be adopted during the winter session of the interim parliament. And with the Nepali Congress adamantly against tampering with the agreed mixed system, it would surely not pass. Nonetheless, the Maoists were handed a fine tool for agitation, under the guise of the special session's majority decision.

Even more important was the fact that the vote in the special session generated two fractures – in the alliance between the UML and Congress, and within the UML itself. The relationship between the Congress and the UML, as the two primary democratic forces in the house, has long been of particular importance in the peace process, particularly in a situation involving a nervous Maoist party that could bolt at any moment. The Congress-UML strategic unity has been important in ensuring a pluralistic outcome of the Constituent Assembly process, and in challenging the Maoists to remain within the bounds of propriety while resisting the attempt of the rightists to push them back into the jungle. Whatever the reasons given by UML General-Secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal for going against the better judgement of his own senior party colleagues, the fact is that the public suddenly saw not a democratic alliance, but rather a leftist alliance with an as-yet-not-entirely-reformed CPN (Maoist).

The days ahead will have to be devoted to rebuilding trust between the UML and the Congress, and thereafter to forcing the Maoists to participate in an election that they seem dead set against and willing to postpone for as long as possible. This is, of course, a betrayal of the Nepali people and their People's Movement, but the CPN (Maoist) has not yet matured into a party that goes by such courtesies. To put a positive spin on a bad and dangerous situation, one can read the Maoist filibustering at the special session as part of their process of maturation, as something that allowed the moderate leadership within the party to keep the flock together at a time when the going was getting difficult.

But even if one were to give the CPN (Maoist) this benefit of the doubt, its leadership will still need to come to an agreement on elections within the Nepali year 2064, which ends in mid-April 2008. As things stand, the Maoists do not appear to want to come to the elections of their own volition, and as such will have to be pressured by a united democratic front. For this, it is vital that the CPN (UML) and the Nepali Congress work together to create a strong front for elections, democracy and peace – a phalanx that the Maoists would ignore at their own peril.

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Himal Southasian