The elections in Nepal will complete the democratic transition. India must play an enabling role
Elections on November 26 and December 7 in Nepal mark a historic moment in its tumultuous transition from a 240-year-old monarchy to a multi-party democracy.
The first general election to be held under the 2015 Constitution, it is also the first time that federal Nepal will elect seven provincial assemblies. Parliament and the provincial assemblies will in turn elect a new president and vice president. Coming after the elections to the 753 local bodies (municipalities, sub-municipalities and village development committees) held earlier this year after a 20-year gap, these will complete the political process and go a long way in consolidating hard-won democratic gains.
Beginnings of political change
Political transition towards multiparty democracy began with the Constitution of 1990, an outcome of the first Janandolan, which introduced constitutional limits on the powers of the monarchy. After a brief period of three years, the monarchy successfully reasserted itself largely due to the squabbling among political leaders and manipulations by the Palace, leading to frequent changes of government. The current Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, who took charge in June, is the 25th Prime Minister in the last 27 years.
A Maoist insurgency erupted in the mid-1990s which lasted a decade and claimed nearly 15,000 casualties. Eventually, in 2005, the political parties and the Maoist leaders signed an accord which laid the foundations for a more formal agreement under which the Maoists came overground and joined mainstream politics. It was a difficult process, given the mistrust between the political parties and the Maoist leadership, with both sides resorting to frequent brinkmanship.
Following elections in May 2008, a 601-member Constituent Assembly (CA) came into being with a two-year mandate to draft a new Constitution for a ‘federal republic’. The 240-year-old institution of the monarchy was abolished. Two new political forces emerged, the Maoists with 229 seats in the CA and the Madhesi parties with 80 seats. Differences within the CA led to a stalemate. After 2010, the CA extended its life four times till, finally, the Supreme Court intervened and the CA lapsed in May 2012 without having completed its mandate.
A major problem was that the Maoists had come to power too soon without having fully disarmed or demobilised. The first Maoist government, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, quickly set about infiltrating other state institutions, particularly the Army. Eventually Mr. Prachanda’s coalition cracked and he resigned in May 2009.
Political leaders were busy playing musical chairs instead of addressing Constitution drafting issues. In the process, the new political forces underwent a process of fragmentation. The Maoists split twice and the Madhesi parties also fragmented. Importantly, the process of rehabilitation of the demobilised Maoist militants was concluded, removing the threat of intimidation that had cast a shadow over the 2008 elections.
Elections for a new CA were finally held in November 2013, with significantly different results. The Maoists were down to 81 seats and the Madhesis to 40; the older parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), emerged stronger with 201 and 175 seats, respectively. These two formed a coalition under NC leader Sushil Koirala on the understanding that the prime ministership would pass to UML leader K.P.S. Oli once a new Constitution was concluded.
The devastating earthquake in 2015 which caused nearly 10,000 casualties and inflicted economic losses of over $7 billion on an economy still recovering from a decade-long Maoist insurgency compelled the political parties to rush through the long-delayed Constitution. One reason was that the international community which had collectively pledged $4.4 billion of reconstruction assistance made it clear that disbursements could only happen if local systems were in place so that the relief and rehabilitation funds were not be siphoned off.
The hastily concluded Constitution enjoyed the support of the NC, UML and the Maoists but left the Madhesis and the Janjatis deeply unhappy. Mr. Oli was quick to claim the prime ministership in October 2015 but did little to pacify the protesters in the Terai. Nearly 50 lives were lost in the violence. Sympathetic to the Madhesi cause, India declared that unless peace was restored in the Terai, normal movement of goods across the border was not possible, leading to shortages of critical items such as petrol, diesel, liquefied petroleum gas and medical supplies. Instead of starting a dialogue with the Madhesis, Mr. Oli accused India of imposing an “economic blockade” and reverted to the age-old tactic of flirting with China to expand supply systems across the Tibetan plateau.
Eventually, his coalition collapsed and Mr. Prachanda pulled back his support in order to join with the NC in July last year. After a tenure lasting 10 months during which he conducted the first phase of the local body elections, he handed over power to NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba, who became the tenth Prime Minister in Nepal’s nine years as a republic.
Keeping on track
The new Constitution provides for a National Assembly of 160 directly elected members (first-past-the-post system) and an additional 110 through proportional representation (PR), making for a more manageable House compared to the earlier 601. Further, in order to gain a PR seat, a political party must have 3% of the national vote, which has forced smaller parties to consolidate.
Once certain that the elections were on track, Mr. Prachanda announced a tie-up with the UML, creating a left alliance and extracting 63 out of 160 seats. If the Maoists — Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) —manage to win in 35, it will enable Mr. Prachanda to emerge as kingmaker, and he could well return to the NC, depending on the deal. The UML is hoping to ride the wave that propelled it to the top position in the local body elections earlier this year. The NC has managed alliances with the Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N) — a Madhesi grouping — as well as the two conservative factions of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), led by Kamal Thapa and Pashupati Rana. This is presented as the democratic front and if the NC manages 60 seats, it will have better prospects of cobbling together a coalition than the UML. Much will depend on how the Madhesi candidates fare in the Terai.
Retrieving lost ground
One of the important challenges for the new government will be to revive the constitutional amendment to address Madhesi grievances; Mr. Deuba had pushed it through in August but failed to muster the necessary two-thirds majority. Having realised that its overt support to the Madhesi cause in 2015 had hurt India-Nepal relations and was being exploited by the UML, India softened its position. For the last year, it has been urging the Madhesi leadership to work through the political process rather than through agitation or boycott of elections.
The anti-India sentiment generated in 2015 was exploited by Mr. Oli in wooing China, which is interested in expanding its presence as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. The first ever visit by a Chinese Defence Minister, General Chang Wanquan, to Nepal took place earlier this year, followed by a joint military exercise. Two major hydel projects, West Seti and Budhi Gandaki, were awarded to Chinese companies though the latter was cancelled subsequently. China is exploring a rail link to Nepal as well as opening a new road link at Rasuwagadhi while expanding the existing Araniko highway.
Once the new government takes charge in Kathmandu, it is likely that the new Prime Minister will visit India, perhaps in early 2018. A reciprocal visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, focussing on connectivity and project delivery, later in 2018 would help in reviving the positive sentiments generated by his first visit in 2014, and in keeping with the spirit of the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy.
This commentary originally appeared in The Hindu.