Nepal’s constitutional election
Nepal is voting in two phases on 26 November and 7 December for Parliament and seven provincial assemblies provided for under the new republican, federal order adopted in September 2015. The new Constitution has mandated that legislative institutions must be put in place by January 2018. Elections are being held simultaneously for both national and provincial legislatures on the basis of first-past-the-post (FPTP) and proportional representation (PR) norms. Accordingly, to constitute a Parliament of 275 members, 165 members will be elected directly from single-member constituencies and 110 will be nominated by the parties, depending on the percentage of votes polled by them. 33% of the seats are reserved for women, a feature that highlights Nepal’s concern for gender equality in South Asia.
Dynamism was injected in these elections by the formation of Communist Alliance on 2 October, wherein the main opposition Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist or UML) joined hands with a ruling coalition partner, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) to contest elections on a 60:40 basis both in Parliament and provincial assemblies. They were the second- and third-largest parties in the dissolved second constituent assembly. A smaller group led by former Maoists, the Naya Shakti Party also joined the alliance, only to part company in a matter of days, on the question of distribution of seats. The Maoists and UML had declared that eventually they will merge to form one Communist Party after the elections. The alliance is suspected to have been forged with Chinese support, both moral and material.
The Communist Alliance has stirred up Nepal’s politics and electoral calculations. The ruling Nepali Congress (NC) was shocked to see its coalition partner joining hands with the opposition, even without leaving the government. Prime Minister Deuba added new ministers in place of the Maoists and gave them the latter’s portfolios, but the Maoists did not resign. NC moved to forge a democratic alliance by inviting all other non-communist groups, specially the conservative Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) and Madhes parties. They have come closer but have stopped short of forming a competitive alliance as the questions of seats and power distribution could not be sorted out. Only one of the Madhes-based parties, the Nepal Democratic Forum (NDF) led by Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar has merged with the NC to “resist totalitarian” forces.
Electoral politics has therefore got polarized along sharp ideological lines. The campaign is being carried out on the planks of communist versus democratic politics. Developmental issues are raised but they do not form the thrust of the campaign. The election scene is dominated by the dynasty factor. There have been sporadic incidents of violence where attempts have been made on candidates as well as their supporters through IEDs and pressure-cooker bombs. There are disgruntled old Maoists and other groups who would like to disrupt the election process. The army has been deployed in sensitive areas and it is hoped that the elections will run through the entire process. Successful holding of elections is seen to be of critical significance for the implementation of the new Constitution.
Former Prime Minister and Communist Alliance leader K.P. Sharma Oli is claiming that the alliance will secure a two-thirds majority in the house. This is highly exaggerated and unrealistic. The idea of an alliance was forced and the cadre of both the Maoists and the UML are not happy with the move. Many of those denied tickets as a result of this alliance may sabotage the electoral prospects of their own party candidates. However, the alliance is ahead of the NC and may just secure a majority. The NC leadership is also fragmented but there are efforts to work out last minute equations with the prospective allies to improve electoral gains. The possibility of a wild card situation may arise if Maoist leader Prachanda decides to join the NC to claim prime ministership. Mutual trust between the UML and the Maoists runs very thin even at the level of the top leadership.
India is hoping against hope that the Communist Alliance does not come to dominate Nepali politics. That may open up the possibility of radical political transformations in the system like a presidential executive, as also greater push of Chinese investments and strategic influence in Nepal. It will, however, not be for the first time that India may have to deal with Communist rule in Nepal. There are limits beyond which Nepal cannot afford to ignore or hurt India’s critical interests. Indian diplomacy should be prepared to gear up its resilience and ensure that Nepal remains a close and dependable friend, irrespective of the political complexion of Kathmandu.
S.D. Muni is professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and distinguished fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).
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