Nepal 2013

Map of Nepal (source: ezilon)

Elections to a second constituent assembly were held in Nepal on November 19, 2013. The Constituent Assembly will be made up of 601 members, of which 575 are directly elected through a parallel system and the remaining 26 being nominated by the Council of Ministers. 240 members are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies and 335 nationally by party-list proportional representation, seemingly with no threshold. Because this is a parallel system, the PR seats are distributed without taking into account the seats won by the parties in single-member constituencies.

Nepal is the world’s second youngest republic, having been proclaimed as the ‘Democratic Federal Republic of Nepal’ on May 28, 2008. There was exceptionally broad consensus between political actors on the proclamation of a republic and some basic republican tenets, to rid Nepal of the discredited and widely loathed monarchy. However, there has been little actual consensus when it came to more contentious issues surrounding the constitution of the new republic. Therefore, the constituent assembly elected in April 2008 was unable to agree on a permanent constitution within two years (May 28, 2010) and the constituent assembly unilaterally and unconstitutionally voted extend its term by one year, a decision invalidated by the Supreme Court a year later. The constituent assembly ignored that decision and repeatedly extended its term, but it failed to agree on a constitutional by the final deadline of May 27, 2012. The constituent assembly was dissolved and elections were due to be held last year (November 2012), but they were indefinitely postponed and ended up taking place only a year later.

Background

Nepal became a unified monarchy in 1768, ruled by the Shah dynasty – a Chhetri (the warrior/ruler caste in Nepali Hinduism) group which came from the Gorkha principality in the Himalayas. The Shah dynasty united the various monarchies in present-day Nepal (and parts of present-day India) under one crown, but they soon found themselves debilitated by a power vacuum which led to an era of instability and aristocratic infighting which lasted until 1846. That year, a military commander established the Rana dynasty, which held the hereditary office of Prime Minister and kept the Shah monarchs as prisoners in their palace until 1951. Rana rule brought stability and basic modernization, but at the expense of political or economic development. The Rana’s parallel monarchy finally fell in 1951, the result of growing political activity (notably by Nepali exiles in India) and the loss of their two major foreign allies – British India and non-communist China. In 1951, the last Rana Prime Minister resigned and the Shah monarch returned to power.

Between 1951 and 1959, Nepal experimented with a “limping democracy” in which the King, Tribhuvan (1911-1955), was unwilling to concede power to a new generation of politicians. In 1946, Nepali exiles in India, heavily influenced by political developments in India at the time, formed what became the Nepali Congress (NC), a democratic socialist party whose original goal was overthrowing the Rana dynasty and establishing a multiparty democracy. During this period, under an interim constitution, the king perennially postponed elections and regularly dismissed uncooperative Prime Ministers, attempting to find a government which would do what he wanted behind the democratic façade. King Mahendra (1955-1972) finally organized free elections in 1959 (but drew up his own constitution beforehand, to ensure the new government would be weak), which were handily won by the NC, allowing its longtime leader, Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala (who had led the brief anti-Rana revolutionary struggle), to become Prime Minister. Koirala’s government tried to reform the system, with some success (among others, it abolished the birta tax-free land tenure system which had allowed the government to distribute land as a reward to its backers). However, the reforms troubled the king – who didn’t believe in democracy – and in December 1960, he dismissed Koirala and restored an absolute monarchy.

In 1962, King Mahendra imposed a four-tiered party-less panchayat system which, in practice, vested all relevant powers in the person of the king and his delegates at the local level. The partisan opposition, forced to go underground, was divided: the Nepali Congress split on which attitude to adopt towards the panchayat system, while the fractious Communist Party of Nepal began splitting a thousand different ways.

Under the panchayat system, the monarchy heavily favoured one ethnicity (the Indo-Nepalese Pahari people, specifically the upper caste Chhetri and Bahun/Brahman), one religion (Hinduism was the state religion), one set of values and one language (the Nepali language, which evolved from the Pahari-Gorkhali language) at the expense of lower castes and other ethnic groups in Nepal’s extremely diverse society. The Pahari people fled to the Nepalese hills several hundred years ago, in the wake of the Muslim invasions of northern India, and came to settle throughout Nepal, although primarily in the Hill region in central Nepal. Their language and religion, although conditioned and altered by the Nepalese environment, betray their northern Indian origins. However, the term Pahari is not widely used in Nepal because the Paharis generally are known by their individual caste names. The Chhetri and Bahun have long dominated the political system, civil service and the military in Nepal. The Newar people, a group of mixed Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman ethnicity historically concentrated in the Kathmandu Valley, were sometimes favoured (to a much lesser extent) by the monarchy although their language (Nepal Bhasa) was discriminated against. Lower castes, other Indo-Nepalese peoples (including more recent immigrants from northern India) and Tibeto-Nepalese groups were excluded from power.

King Mahendra died in 1972 and was succeeded by King Birendra, slightly more modern in his political outlook although still quite allergic to multiparty democracy. He made minor tweaks to the panchayat system, but it was clear that he fully intended to let the system endure and concurrently took steps to step up the elites’ control of the system to prevent entryism from the underground parties. In 1979, King Birendra organized a referendum on the panchayat system, which received 55% support. Shortly thereafter, the king allowed for direct elections to the national assembly or National Panchayat. The first elections, in 1981, were still entirely partyless and the bulk of the opposition NC and communists boycotted the polls – nevertheless, candidates backed by the king lost heavily. The reformed panchayat system became increasingly factional in the 1980s.

Nepal is landlocked between two hugely influential and powerful regional hegemons: India and China, and both countries have had a major influence on domestic Nepalese politics. Under Rana rule, Kathmandu’s foreign policy aimed at maintaining friendly relations with both the British (in India) and the Chinese; the fall of British India in 1947 and the communist victory in China in 1949 contributed heavily to the fall of Rana rule in Nepal in 1951. The newly independent Indian state opposed Rana rule and backed the democratic experiment in Nepal, and briefly backed anti-monarchist NC rebels after the palace coup in 1960. However, after a war with China in 1962, India saw that it would be better off with a friendly government in Kathmandu than by supporting insurrections in Nepal. Relations with ‘red’ China were normalized in the late 1950s and early 1960s, inaugurating a new era of ‘equal friendship’ with both regional powers.

However, India has traditionally been the more powerful and influential country in Nepal, both because of ethnic and geographic (southern Nepal’s Terai plains regions morphs into northern India, whereas Nepal and China are separated by the high peaks of the Himalayas) reasons. Relations between India and Nepal have gone through ups and downs, marked by persistent Nepalese fears of their southern giant’s hegemonic goals and India’s desire to have their word to say in Nepalese politics, diplomacy and economy. Beginning in 1950s, India and Nepal signed a number of treaties which granted Nepal trade and transit rights in India. In 1989, relations sank to a low point after Nepal signed a weapons deal with China, prompting India to impose a virtual trade siege on Nepal. The trade siege had a crippling effect on the economy, and added to rising opposition to the panchayat system.

Mass demonstrations in February and March 1990 forced King Birendra to concede landmark constitutional reforms – appointing the NC’s moderate leader K.P. Bhattarai as Prime Minister, freeing political prisoners and drafting a new constitution in November 1990. The new constitution created a multiparty constitutional monarchy, with the Prime Minister – appointed by the King – responsible to a lower house. The 1990 constitution declared Nepal to be a multiethnic and multilingual country, granting human rights to all citizens and banning discrimination on racial, ethnic, tribal, caste etc grounds. There were high hopes that the new constitutional monarchy would reduce the power of the Chhetri/Bahun ruling elite and allowed previously marginalized groups to gain political representation and influence.

In the May 1991 elections, the NC won an absolute majority with 110 seats (but only 37.8% of the vote) while the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or CPN (UML) placed second with 28% and 69 seats. Two monarchists won only four seats, less than smaller communist parties and a regionally-based party. Girija Prasad Koirala, the brother of former Prime Minister BP Koirala, became Prime Minister. Despite the high hopes for multiparty democracy, a number of factors collided to make the second experiment in multiparty democracy disappointing, to say the least. In the 1994 elections, the CPN (UML) won the most seats – 88 to NC’s 83 – while the monarchists also made solid gains, winning 20 seats. The divided Parliament led to a quick succession of unstable minority governments formed by the CPN (UML), NC and monarchists. In 1999, the NC regained an absolute majority with 111 seats against 71 for the CPN (UML) and 11 for the monarchists.

Although the 1989 crisis with India was quickly settled, economic problems – such as high inflation and substantial foreign debt – worsened and limited governments’ ability to address economic development and poverty. Furthermore, relatively little changed when it came to the makeup of political leadership and the civil service: most of the new political leadership were largely drawn from the Bahun and Chhetri groups, who retained control of the military and government jobs; Nepal remained a unitary state and the grievances of ethnic-linguistic minorities were not addressed adequately. Combined with corruption, extreme poverty and quasi-feudal conditions in a lot of the countryside, the climate was rife for an armed revolt. An hardline communist Maoist faction launched a bloody “people’s war” in rural Nepal in February 1996. The Maoists claimed to be fighting for political and social liberation – overthrowing the monarchy, the ‘feudal forces’ and liberating the landless peasants, ethnic minorities and so forth in a “people’s state” (which opponents claimed meant an authoritarian communist regime). The Maoist insurgency was, however, of relatively little concern to the central government and the king before 2000; the Maoists were in no position to threaten Kathmandu.

One of the most bizarre episodes in Nepalese and perhaps world history unfolded in June 2001. Crown Prince Dipendra, the son of King Birendra, went on a shooting rampage in the royal palace, killing nine members of the royal family including the king and the queen. Exactly why Dipendra went nuts and turned into a mass murderer that night in June remains a matter of some discussion and controversy – a forbidden marriage, undiagnosed psychosis or a plot by Prince Gyanendra. After killing nine relatives, Dipendra shot himself, but he only died whilst in a coma three days later. That meant that, as the heir to the throne, Dipendra nevertheless became King until he died on June 4 – so, briefly, a mass murderer in a permanent vegetative state was King of Nepal. Upon his death, Prince Gyanendra, Dipendra’s uncle and the late monarch’s brother, ascended to the throne. Gyanendra had been critical of his late brother’s democratic reforms and had very little interest in constitutional politics.

Gyanendra, with disastrous results, got directly involved in politics. In October 2002, citing the NC government’s failure to hold elections, he dismissed the Prime Minister and ruled directly for a few days. Between 2002 and 2005, he appointed and later dismissed three Prime Ministers in a row for failing to hold elections and not bringing the Maoists to round table negotiations. By 2001, the insurrection had turned into a civil war, with the Maoists effectively controlling two-thirds of the country. Gyanendra called in the Nepalese army to take charge of the conflict in 2002, and the military received funding, weapons and training from the US, EU and India. The Maoists resorted to brutal tactics in the areas of the countryside which they controlled: extortion, murder, kidnappings, threats against alleged “oppressors of the people”, use of child soldiers and so forth. The army showed little concern for human rights itself, with allegations of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, rapes and torture.

In February 2005, Gyanendra dismissed the Prime Minister and ruled directly – this time for an extended period of time. Gyanendra’s decision to run the conflict himself went about as well as you’d expect. Civil liberties and political rights were curtailed even further, as the monarch unleashed a wave of repression against union activists, journalists, politicians and human rights activists. Foreign military aid more or less dried up. The political parties got their act together, with the NC, CPN (UML) and other small parties forming a seven party alliance and in November 2005, the parties and the Maoists agreed to work together to restore democracy. In September, the Maoists had declared a three-month ceasefire. In January 2006, the Maoists ended the ceasefire and launched coordinated attacks in the Kathmandu Valley, striking at the heart of the government’s power. The political parties continued mass demonstrations, culminating in organized general strikes and protests in early April 2006. The Maoists refrained from violence and played a key role in mobilizing and directing protesters. As the strikes proved to be wildly successful, the king was unable to respond and in late April announced that he would relinquish absolute powers – which was rejected as insufficient by the parties and the Maoists, who feared that it would only mean a return to the pre-2005 state of things. Gyanendra was forced to give in, reconvening Parliament, appointing NC leader GP Koirala as Prime Minister.

In May 2006, the new government stripped the king of all of his powers – making him liable to taxation, prosecution and nationalizing his properties; giving cabinet full control over the military; declaring Nepal a secular control and dropping references to the king in the national anthem. In November 2006, the Maoists and the government signed a peace agreement. The Maoist army would lay down their weapons and put in temporary cantonments under UN monitoring, while the Nepalese army would be confined to their barracks.

An interim constitution was promulgated in January 2007, providing for the election of a constituent assembly – originally scheduled for the summer of 2007 – and guaranteeing human rights, civil liberties, political freedoms, recognizing “multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious and multicultural characteristics”, defining Nepal as a secular and “federal, democratic republican state”. However, hopes for a peaceful and rapid transition were dashed in early January.

The Madhesi people in the southern Terai plains (a densely populated agricultural region bordering India) organized violent strikes and demonstrations to protest the original lack of commitment to federalism and minority rights in the draft constitution. The Madhesi people denote a group of Indo-Aryan groups who immigrated from northern India in the more recent past (19th-20th century) and settled in the Terai region (the term madhesh being used interchangeably to refer to the Terai). The Madhesh usually speak Indo-Aryan languages such as Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi which are widely spoken in the northern Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; although they may also speak Nepali or Tharu, the language of the Tharu people – an indigenous people who likely lived in the Terai before northern Indians arrived in present-day Nepal (as such, they strongly reject being counted as Madhesi). The Madhesis have long faced discrimination from the central government in Kathmandu, which has generally tended to perceive them as potentially dangerous foreign (Indian) agents and as thus had trouble acquiring Nepali citizenship until 2006.

Relations between the Maoists and the parties (and also within the parties) proved delicate, prompting delays in the organization of the elections to a constituent assembly. The Maoists were said to be worried about surveys showing them in third behind the NC and CPN (UML), and threatened to take up arms again if their demands were not fulfilled – while they never did so and violence dropped, their youth wing (YCL) often acted like thugs. They demand the immediate proclamation of a republic and a fully proportional election system, and between September and December 2007, they withdrew their members from the interim cabinet.

Elections were finally held in April 2008. The Maoists, or CPN (M), won 30% of the vote and 229 seats (including members nominated later), becoming the largest party although hardly by a landslide. The Nepali Congress won about 21% and 115 seats while the CPN (UML) won 20% and 108 seats. The conservative and originally monarchist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RJP) was crushed, winning only 2.5% and 8 seats. They were defeated Madhesi parties: three Madhesh parties forming a common front won a total of 11% and 84 seats, with 54 of them going to the Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum (MJF). Small communist or right-wing parties took the rest of the seats.

The Constituent Assembly quickly voted to abolish the monarchy, with the only opposition coming from the four members of the hardline monarchist Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal. That would be, however, the only time in the course of the CA when everybody got along. Negotiations between the Maoists, NC and CPN (UML) – with the Madhesi parties destabilizing matters further by injecting demands for federalism. The NC and CPN (UML) opposed the Maoists’ demand that they hold both the presidency and the prime ministership, largely because both old parties were worried that the Maoists were still plotting to establish a single-party communist state. In June, the NC, CPN (UML) and the Madhesi parties formed an alliance to elect the president and vice-president, with the presidency going to Ram Baran Yadav of the Nepali Congress. In August, however, the CPN (UML) and the Madhesi parties switched sides, and they backed Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, as Prime Minister.

The impossible constitution

In any event, Prachanda – the fierce Maoist rebel leader – didn’t create a single-party communist state. The Maoists continued to scare people away with talk of a “people’s republic” and their youth wing continued to act as violent thugs, but in government Prachanda was actually rather moderate and pragmatic.

Things went smoothly enough, with a reasonably competent government which began redistributing some money to the poor. There was and remains little hope for justice for the thousands of victims of the civil war. Relations with the other parties, however, remained extremely fragile and unstable and the Maoist government came to clash with the military in May 2009. The Maoists were demanding that the army chief, General Rookmangud Katawal, integrate 19,000 Maoist fighters into a new Nepalese army. General Katawal, a ‘devotee’ of King Gyanendra who never hid his hatred for the Maoists, refused. He had previously refused to curtail a military recruitment drive despite the UN’s objections and had already clashed with the Maoists when their government refused to extend the service of eight brigadier-generals.

General Katawal’s decision to disobey Prachanda’s orders was backed by the NC and CPN (UML) – even if the latter were junior partners in the Maoist-led cabinet (according to The Economist, they “joined the government but always seemed in a hurry to leave”). India, alarmed by the Maoists’ rapprochement with China (despite Beijing having previously had no interest in the Maoist rebellion), quietly backed the general as well. Thus, when Prachanda sacked Katawal, President Yadav refused and Prachanda resigned on May 4, 2009. While the Maoists argued that the military’s disobedience amounted to an illegitimate military dictatorship, the NC and CPN (UML) were united in their suspicion that the Maoists were the ones who wanted a dictatorship themselves. Prachanda, did, however, propose to join a government of national unity if Katawal was sacked; President Yadav refused.

CPN (UML) leader Madhav Kumar Nepal became Prime Minister, in an unstable and makeshift minority alliance with the Nepali Congress. The Marxist-Leninist name of the CPN (UML) is very much a misnomer; the CPN (UML) has been a moderate and pragmatic party since 1991, when it acquiesced to a constitutional monarchy while more radical communists like the Maoists demanded a republic. The CPN (UML) describes its ideology as “People’s Multi-Party Democracy”, which their website rather amusingly describes as a “creative application of Marxism and Leninism in the Nepalese condition” and which appears to be a way of saying social democratic/liberal democracy couched in silly Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. Indeed, somebody well read in Nepalese politics once described them to me as a social democratic party while The Economist has called them both a ‘mainstream leftist’ and ‘centrist’ party.

The Nepali Congress are a member of the Socialist International, but in practice they’re an even more moderate liberal party (their website speaks of “development that would integrate the beneficial aspects of economic liberalization and globalization with upliftment of the most needy”) whose history has been defined by the often unsuccessful struggle for pluralist democracy rather than by any socialist policies. The NC has tended to be seen as a pro-Indian party, given the conditions of their creation and the party’s usually good relations with India throughout its history. The CPN (UML) has tended to be slightly less pro-Indian, while the Maoists have historically been anti-Indian and nationalist. In office, however, Prachanda’s government did not rescind the longstanding trade and transit agreements with India, despite the Maoists having floated that idea in the past.

The Maoists boycotted the Parliament (blocking any progress on the constitution, which required consensus or a two-thirds majority of all members on each article to be adopted) and mounted frequent mass protests, which turned violent in some cases. Facing such a stalemate, Prime Minister Nepal resigned in May 2010, but the Maoists blocked 16 separate attempts to elect a new Prime Minister (the votes opposed Prachanda to NC leader Ram Chandra Poudel). Finally, in February 2011, with a little over 100 days to go until the deadline for the CA to adopt a constitution expired, the Maoists surprised everybody by rejoining government, even allowing CPN (UML) leader Jhala Nath Khanal to serve as Prime Minister.

In the meantime, the deadline for adopting a constitution had passed on May 28, 2010 and the CA hadn’t come close to adopting a constitution by that point. From that point forward, Nepal moved into legal limbo given that the 2007 interim constitution under which Nepal is governed under in the meantime, had no provisions to deal with the possibility that the CA would not be able to meet the constitutional deadline. The CA repeatedly extended its mandate, a move of very dubious constitutionality. In August 2011, the government was forced to resign and replaced by a Maoist-led government with Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai.

At the root of the failure to agree on the constitution is a debate on the federal nature of the new Nepalese republic. There is broad agreement between the major parties (and the Madhesh) that the new state should be a federal republic, as declared in the interim constitution, but there are significant disagreements on the form, extent or nature of federalism. Little of the public debate and attention on federalism has been on issues such as the devolution of powers or the responsibilities of the federal states.

One of the proposed federal maps of Nepal (source: linguae)

What has captivated attention and sparked debates have been the number of states, their boundaries and, symbolically, their names. Unlike other federal states such as the United States, Canada or Brazil, Nepal is attempting to create a federal structure from scratch and without any preexisting constituent units. Nepal’s current administrative divisions are just that – administrative – and they do not reflect the geography or the ethnic makeup of the country. For example, the current administrative divisions vertically divide the country from north to south, whereas geography has divided the country horizontally with the southern Terai (low-lying) region, the central Hill region and the mountains/Himalayas in the north. Unsurprisingly, the ethnic map in part reflects the geography of the country – with the Madhesh in the Terai, or Tibeto-Nepalese groups in the Himalayas, for example.

Historically marginalized and discriminated lower castes and ethnic minorities see federalism as a key step in the peacemaking process and a way to redress hundreds of years of discrimination at the hands of the Chhetri and Bahun upper-caste Hindu groups. The Chhetri and Bahun, understandably, have been very lukewarm (at best) on the issue of federalism. Publicly, they argue that federalism would threaten national unity, Nepalese sovereignty and predict it will sow communal divisions and lead to violence. Their detractors claim that they were unwilling to give up the significant power which they still hold by devolving powers to constituent units.

Ethnic minorities, particularly the Madhesis, favour what is widely being called ‘ethnic federalism’, where the federal states would have a ‘designated’ ethnic identity (similar to the USSR/Russia’s ethnic republics) and would be named after said ethnic identity. The Madhesis, contentiously, want a single Madhesh state in the eastern Terai along the Indian border. Other ethnic groups, under proposed maps, would also have ‘their’ federal state named after them – for example, the state around Kathmandu might be called Newa, after the Newar people who have historically inhabited the Kathmandu Valley. However, like with Russia’s ethnic republics, in very few of the proposed ‘ethnic’ federal entities would the dominant ethnic group also make up an absolute majority of the population. In the Kathmandu Valley, for example, the Newar no longer make up close to an absolute majority. Some ethnic minorities – notably the Limbu, a group in far-eastern Nepal who speak a Tibeto-Burman language, or the Madhesis have demanded ‘prime rights’ – that means, superior rights for a certain ethnicity over others in a given state, which would perhaps amount to minority rule for a ‘privileged’ minority group in a given state at the expense of other minorities. However, the demands for ‘prime rights’ seem to have been quietly dropped.

The Madhesh’s close ties with India have further complicated debates over ethnic federalism. In 2011, four Madhesi political leaders met with senior Indian politicians in New Delhi, sparking new concerns in Kathmandu that the Madhesh’s loyalty to Nepal was suspicious and that India had expansionist designs over the Terai. India has favoured federalism, particularly as it comes to a Madhesi state in the Terai, largely, it seems, as a means of defusing the Maoists’ power.

The Maoists have backed the demands for ‘ethnic federalism’. Support for federalism and devolution of powers to sub-national units is not a characteristically Maoist or dogmatic communist position, yet the Maoists have included demands for federalism since their original 1996 manifesto and became more vocal on the issue after 2007. The Maoists’ support for ethnic federalism has largely been a means for them of harnessing support from lower caste groups and ethnic minorities, which partly explains why the Maoists won the 2008 election. Nevertheless, the political leadership of the Maoists – like that of the other national parties – remains largely Chhetri and Bahun.

The CPN (UML) and NC both oppose ‘ethnic federalism’, although they claim to agree with the wider principle of federalism. The Maoists have often accused these two old parties of representing the ‘elites’ (read: Chhetri and Bahun) and of being unwilling to relinquish their power and back a federal system that could threaten their dominance.

The impasse over federalism, along with debates over the institutions of the central government (the Maoists favouring a presidential republic, which critics say would allow Prachanda to seize full power as President; the CPN (UML) wants a ceremonial presidency with a directly-elected PM while the Congress advocated for a parliamentary system), meant that there was no constitution when the music stopped on May 27, 2012. A few days earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled that another extension of the CA’s term would be unconstitutional.

The NC and CPN (UML), which had been asking for elections, welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision. However, when the music did stop after midnight on May 27, the Maoists called their bluff and announced that there would be elections to a second CA – but that, until then, Maoist PM Baburam Bhattarai would remain Prime Minister. The NC and CPN (UML) did a back flip and refused to endorse elections for November, because they didn’t want (and trust) the Maoist-led government to supervise the elections in November 2012. Therefore, November came and went without elections. There were rumours that President Yadav, an opponent of the Maoists, had sounded out the military and India about overthrowing the government. The Maoists and their opponents reached an agreement in March 2013, under which the independent Chief Justice, Khil Raj Regmi, would serve as caretaker Prime Minister until elections were held in November 2013. Behind the scenes, an uneasy grand coalition-type alliance between the Maoists and their rivals have been handling matters.

Results

I can’t find turnout details, although it appears to have been quite high. High turnout came despite the boycott and violence of a hardline Maoist group which split from the Maoist party (officially the UCPN (M)) and launched a few isolated attacks during the campaign. The preliminary results for the 575 (out of 601) elected seats are (% vote from the PR list vote):

Nepali Congress 25.55% winning 196 seats (105 FPTP, 91 PR)
CPN (UML) 23.66% winning 175 seats (91 FPTP, 84 PR)
UCPN (Maoist) 15.21% winning 80 seats (26 FPTP, 54 PR)
Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal 6.66% winning 24 seats (24 PR)
MJF-Loktantrik 2.91% winning 14 seats (4 FPTP, 10 PR)
Rastriya Prajatantra Party 2.75% winning 13 seats (3 FPTP, 10 PR)
MJF-Nepal 2.26% winning 10 seats (2 FPTP, 8 PR)
Tarai-Madhesh Loktantrik Party 1.19% winning 11 seats (4 FPTP, 7 PR)
Sadbhavana Party 1.41% winning 6 seats (1 FPTP, 5 PR)
CPN (Marxist-Leninist) 1.38% winning 5 seats (5 PR)
Federal Socialist Party 1.28% winning 5 seats (5 PR)
All others 15.02% winning 36 seats (4 FPTP, 32 PR)

Surprisingly, the Maoists were the big losers of the second CA election, placing third with only 80 seats in the new CA, whereas they had won 229 seats (220 of them elected) in the last election. The NC and CPN (UML), the two most important ‘traditional’ parties which had been the major political parties during the constitutional monarchy (1991-2005), reemerged as the most important actors in Nepalese politics. The Congress won 196 seats, up from 115 in the last CA while the CPN (UML) bagged 175 seats, up from 108 in the 2008 election. The other surprise of the vote came the RPP Nepal, a conservative monarchist led by King Gyanendra’s ally and former home minister Kamal Thapa. The RPP Nepal is the only major party which still supports the monarchy and also wants to make Hinduism the state religion again. It had won only 1% and 4 seats in 2008, placing behind the conservative but less pro-monarchy (it is now republican) Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) from which it had split in 2005, today it won 6.7% and 24 seats.

The Madhesi parties, which by the looks of it were extensively divided (more so than in 2008), were the other major losers. The four major Madhesi parties won 41 seats, and it appears 7 of the other seats went to Madhesi parties as well. In 2008, the Madhesi parties had won 84 seats, with the MJF (Madhesi People’s Rights Forum, which seems to have exploded) taking 54 of them.

These results took everybody by surprise, even those, it seems, who had been expecting the Maoists to do poorly. It is somewhat surprising because it appears as if the general impression a year ago, when the elections should have been held, was that the Maoists were expected to win and the NC and CPN (UML)’s hostility to 2012 elections was interpreted by most as a sign that they were unwilling to face voters. The Maoists might have been punished for their behaviour in the last CA, and their inability – shared, to be honest, with all the other parties – to agree on a constitution. The Maoists have also faced criticism from all sides since 2008. They were outmaneuvered, it appears, by the traditional parties. Some voters also felt that the Maoists had started enjoying the spoils and luxuries of power a bit too much (Prachanda was accused of leading a lavish lifestyle since 2008), and their shift towards pragmatic and moderate positions – supporting multiparty democracy, dropping the old anti-Indian nationalist stuff and conceding that only 1,450 of their former fighters be integrated in the new military. It is possible that they may have lost quite a few of their supporters to the ‘active boycott’ which was organized (but unsuccessfully) by some hardline Maoist dissidents. Finally, federalism certainly played a major role in this election (and the foreign media, naturally, failed to pick up on it). Could it be that ethnic federalism has far more opponents than supporters, even if ‘minorities’ (non-Chhetri/Bahun) make up a majority of the population? Or at the very least, the emotional debates on the fairly symbolic details of ‘ethnic federalism’ may have served to mobilize voters, primarily from the dominant Hindu groups, in favour of the NC and CPN (UML).

The United Nations mission in Nepal has a map of the FPTP results, in PDF format. I won’t pretend to know anything which could explain the patterns, since they appear to be fairly random – except for the Maoists holding a few seats in rural areas, and the Madhesi parties winning in the Terai (although the NC and CPN (UML) also did well there).

The Maoists panicked at the election results, with Prachanda claiming that the election had been massively rigged – despite former President Jimmy Carter and other international observers declaring that there was no sign of major fraud or vote rigging. On November 21, the Maoists – joined by a few other sour grapes Madhesi parties – threatened to boycott the CA if the counting process was not halted immediately, a silly request which the election commission naturally refused. Under pressure and sensitive to international public opinion, the Maoists have since backtracked, first reiterating their commitment to the peace process and recently saying that they would sit in the CA if the other parties wanted them there (= agreed to work with them). The Maoists’ behaviour after their first electoral defeat is a real test of their actual belief and commitment to competitive multiparty democratic politics.

The next government will likely be formed by the NC and the CPN (UML), who share lots of common ground – in their hostility towards ethnic federalism, their relatively good ties with India, their suspicions of the Maoists’ true intent and a similar view on the form of the new state. However, there has been some conflict between the NC and CPN (UML) in the past few days over the fate of the presidency. The NC, which holds the presidency, argues that the interim constitution states the presidential term will only expire with the promulgation of a new constitution. However, the CPN (UML) is demanding that there be presidential elections. Basically, the CPN (UML), which is nearly as large as the Congress, wants the top two offices in the country (President and PM) split between the two parties in a power-sharing agreement. The NC seems to be holding its line, but they will probably work out some deal.

As in the past, all politicians have been promising that they would write a constitution quickly, but their track record on that front hasn’t been great. The large majority for the anti-federalist parties – NC and CPN (UML) – will likely facilitate agreement on geographically-based constituent units and very centralized federalism with no ethnic references. Together, the Congress and the CPN (UML) hold 371 of the 575 seats distributed to date, about 15 seats short of a two-thirds majority which would allow the CA to function even without the Maoists and the Madhesi parties, and allow for a majority on constitutional articles. The monarchist RPP Nepal has already said that it is open to compromises, even on their two key positions (the monarchy and Hindu nature of the state). The Madhesi parties, however, have announced that they would take to the streets if their demands were not met. But after such a poor showing in their Terai strongholds, the Madhesi parties are in a much weaker bargaining position.

Will Nepal finally be able to adopt a permanent republican constitution, ending nearly six years of constitutional deadlock? Breaking the constitutional deadlock might finally allow politicians to pay attention to the host of other issues facing the world’s second youngest republic, which is the third poorest country in Asia (a low HDI of 0.463).

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Posted on December 8, 2013, in Nepal. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. excellent piece of work

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