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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 51, December 7, 2013

Nepal Constituent Assembly Elections: A Review

Saturday 7 December 2013

by Sangeeta Thapliyal

Amidst high drama, the Constituent Assembly elections took place in Nepal on November 19, 2013. There were many who had apprehended the possibility of postponement of elections due to boycott by 33 political parties led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), a breakaway faction from the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [UCPN(M)]. The boycotting parties wanted the elections to be conducted by a national government rather by a Supreme Court judge, Khil Raj Regmi. There were incidents of violence reported from all over Nepal.

Despite protests, the elections were held. The Nepali Congress has emerged as the winner in both the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) and Proportional Representation (PR), followed by the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist). The UCPN(M) has secured the third place in the overall electoral scene.

Unlike the Constituent Assembly elections of 2008, the results were not much of a surprise this time. In the 2008 CA elections, Nepal-watchers expected the Nepali Congress to do well but to their surprise the Maoists had emerged as the largest party in the CA leading in both the FPTP and PR. During the 2013 elections, Nepal-watchers had already predicted that the NC and CPN(UML) would do better in the elections and the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) would fare better than in the last elections in the Proportional Representation. The reasons were many.

In the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections held in April 2008 with a mandate to write the new Constitution with federal democratic republic in its spirit, the Nepali voters had brought in the Maoists as the largest party to fulfil their promise of restructuring Nepal. The Maoists, however, frittered away their energies in intra-party or inter-party power struggle, interfering in institutions like the Army and paramilitary forces and then Prachanda’s resignation from the post of the Prime Minister. The Nepalese were disappointed. During the people’s war the Maoists had emerged as the representatives of the marginalised people and those who expected an egalitarian society but they lost their sheen with their failure to deliver and govern in the CA. Issues of corruption,
the Maoist leaders’ luxurious lifestyle, non-seriousness on political issues and blatant struggle for power ended the difference between them and those heading any other political party in Nepal.

Due to inter- and intra-party (seen in all the parties) differences, the Constitution-writing became the biggest casualty. There were certain issues on which the parties did not seem to have consensus such as on the issue of restructuring of the state to unveil a federal system; all the parties had their own proposals based on ethnicity, geography, economy or a combination of these criteria. The form of govern-ment, whether presidential or parliamentary, was another issue which required political consensus. Although the UCPN and Madheshi Front had come to some broad consensus on the restructuring of the state and form of government, due to lack of consensus with other political parties the Constitution could not be written within the stipulated time period. The deadline to write the new Constitution was May 2011. It was extended four times: for a one-year term followed by two of three months duration each and one of six months duration. On May 28, 2012, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai dissolved the CA and declared the next CA elections to be held on November 19.

Since then, the country was in intense political turmoil. Opposition parties, including the hard-line faction of the UCPN, were demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Bhattarai before any discussion on constitutional issues. In the meantime on March 13, 2013, Khil Raj Regmi, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was declared as the Chief Executive of an interim Election Council to conduct the elections. Rebel Maoists under the leadership of Mohan Baidya challenged the legitimacy of the Election Council and instead called for a national government. The major parties decided to go ahead with the elections despite protests from the 33 parties’ alliance.

The election results have placed the Maoists as the third largest party in the CA. In FPTP they have secured 26 seats and 54 in PR as compared to 120 and 100 in 2008. This does indicate the disappointment of the electorate with the Maoists and their unfulfilled promise of realising the dream of ‘Naya Nepal’. The Nepali Congress secured 105 seats in the FPTP and 91 in PR as compared to 37 and 73 in the 2008 CA elections. The Congress had fielded candidates suitable to the constituencies based on identity, whether ethnicity or caste, and fared well in the FPTP polls. The CPN(UML) secured 91 seats in the FPTP and 84 in the PR as compared to 33 and 70 in the last CA elections. They did remarkably well in these elections. The loss of the UCPN was UML’s gain. The Madhesh Janadihkar Forum could not do well as its votes probably got distributed amongst the many Madhes parties.

The Rashtriya Prajanantra Party Nepal, led by Kamal Thapa, secured 24 seats in PR and had got four in the last CA elections. It is placed as the fourth largest party in the CA. The Rashtriya Prajanantra Party, led by Pashupati Shamsher Rana, secured three seats in FPTP and 10 in PR as compared to eight (PR) in the last CA. There is an increase of monarchists in the present CA. Right from the beginning, the RPP Nepal has been against declaring Nepal as a republic. Pro-monarchy parties did well in PR voting. During the last four years the monarchists had become vocal on issues of federalism, republicanism. Royals themselves had got active in philanthropy. Also in the era of political instability people looked up to the monarchy as a secure refuge which can provide stability from a rather uncertain, politically volatile Naya Nepal. New identity-based parties did not create a ripple in the voting pattern and many did not secure a single seat.

The new CA has to write the Constitution and deal with the major issues of disagreement. A close look at the election manifestos would reveal that the parties have stuck to their stated positions on major issues. The UCPN (M) manifesto has proposed eight federal states based on identity and three on geography and 24 protected areas and autonomous regions. It prefers a directly elected presidential system and a Prime Minister elected by the House for running the administration.

The Nepali Congress has proposed a parlia-mentary system of government with the President as the ceremonial head of state. It has proposed seven provinces on financial capability and 13 on identity. The CPN(UML) manifesto has also proposed seven provinces with multiple identities. Its model of governance is similar to that of the NC.

The Maoists and Madhesh Morcha have been supporting an identity-based federalism. Traditionally the NC and CPN(UML) were not the proponents of federalism. However, it has become an emotive issue with a large number of people and cannot be wished away easily. Even though the NC and UML do not give much credence to ethnic-based federalism as propounded by the Maoists, it would have to deliver a federal Constitution. What form of federalism would come into effect will depend on negotiations and bargaining positions. The RPP Nepal and Rashtriya Jan Morcha have been against ethnic federalism. The issue has become a victim of intra- and inter-party feud.

The new Constitution has to address issues of federalism, form of governance, and the kind of electoral system that the country could adopt. The Congress has to take along with it all the parties and people, including the Maoists. After initial opposition to the election results, the UCPN has agreed to accept the people’s verdict and be a responsible player in parliament. Even the CPN(M) wants to be a part of the Constituent Assembly.

All hopes are now pinned on the writing of the new Constitution. Unless and until thorough deliberations are conducted on these issues there are bound to be dissensions. And the country cannot be held hostage to political dissensions.

Prof Sangeeta Thapliyal belongs to the Department of Inner Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is also the Vice-President, Association of Asia Scholars, New Delhi.

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