External Affairs

Nepal's Narrow Window of Opportunity May Be Fast Closing

Nepal is at a crossroads. An immediate political settlement with the Madhesi parties will help the country avoid widespread electoral violence, the possibility of foreign powers calling the shots and the eventual failure of the constitution.

Kathmandu: The unprecedented merger of six small Madhesi parties on April 20 had promised so much. The combined outfit, called Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN), now has 25 MPs in the 601-strong national parliament, making it the single largest Madhesi force in the country.

There were many reasons for this merger. One was that Upendra Yadav, who has been the most influential Madhesi leader since the 2007 Madhes Movement, has been trying to consolidate his own strength by bringing together like-minded forces. Likewise, Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar, another influential Madhesi leader, has been quietly building up his strength with mergers with other smaller parties. He now commands 19 seats in parliament.

Yadav currently leads the Federal Alliance, a group of 28 minor Madhesi and Janajati outfits. Although this alliance includes the six Madhesi parties that are now under the RJPN umbrella, other Madhesi leaders have long bristled at Yadav’s leadership of the alliance. The RJPN constituent parties felt that they were being overshadowed by Yadav’s growing political clout. Gachhadar’s burgeoning alliance was also a threat.

The other reason behind the mergers is the parliament’s recent decision that only those political parties that get at least 3% of votes in future elections will be called ‘national parties‘. This designation comes with perks such as the provision of spacious party secretariats and monetary benefits from the state.

If another Bill that is being discussed in the parliament is also passed, most of these smaller outfits will not even be represented in parliament; the Bill proposes that the political parties that get less than 3% of total votes will be left out. Since all the major political forces in Nepal seem to be in favour of this Bill, there is now greater pressure on smaller parties to consolidate.

Also read: What Are Nepal’s Madhesis Fighting For?

Yet another reason for political consolidation in Madhes is pressure from the grassroots. Common Madhesis had voted enthusiastically for Madhesi parties in the first constituent assembly election in 2008 – giving the three biggest regional Madhesi parties 84 seats out of a national total of 601. But they were greatly dismayed by the power-centric politics of these Madhesi outfits, as nearly all the major Madhesi parties later fractured in their mad scramble for power. The Madhesi causes they championed were also conveniently forgotten.

As a result, in the second constituent assembly election in 2013, the three biggest Madhesi parties that emerged from the election between them secured just 45 seats.

Now, as the country enters another electoral cycle – the new constitution stipulates that three sets of elections (federal, provincial and local) must be completed by the January 2018 deadline – there is great pressure on these Madhesi parties to once again unite and together fight for the Madhesi cause. They are also said to be under immense pressure from ‘outside’ (read: India) to consolidate.

As important, the Madhesi parties must have felt that their fractured strength did not allow them to negotiate with Kathmandu from a position of strength.

Politics of boycott

The Federal Alliance and the constituent parties of the newly-created RJPN had, even before the merger, announced that they would not just boycott but actively disrupt the local election slated for May 14. Following the merger, there was an oral agreement between the RJPN, the Federal Alliance and the ruling Nepali Congress andCommunity Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) that the constitution would be amended to meet some demands of Madhesi forces and that the Madhesi forces would then take part in the May 14 vote. Following the agreement, the RJPN and the alliance thus rolled back their plans to disrupt the local election.

Chief among their demands has been a revision of federal borders so that the hill areas of the country are completely separated from the Tarai flatlands, in order to break the monopoly on the power of hill-centric politicians. They also want revisions in the constitution on language provisions, citizenship and in the number of local level units in Tarai-Madhes. Yet, despite their latest agreement with the ruling coalition, it is far from certain that this agreement will be honoured and the Madhesi parties will take part in the May 14 vote.

The Community Party of Nepal-Unified Marxists Leninists (UML), the main opposition, has nearly a third of the seats is the 601-member parliament. So it will be practically impossible to amend the constitution with two-thirds vote without UML’s approval. But speaking in the parliament on April 24, K.P. Sharma Oli, the combative UML chairman, ruled out any kind of ‘dangerous’ amendment of the constitution. But it is also inconceivable that the RJPN and the Federal Alliance will agree to go to election without the favourable amendment of the constitution.

One option would be to defer the election. But neither Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ nor Sher Bahadur Deuba, the leader of Nepali Congress and Prachanda’s chief coalition partner, is in favour of this. When he became prime minister in August 2016 Prachanda had a tacit understanding with Deuba that he would vacate the prime minister’s chair for the veteran Congress leader after nine months. Prachanda fears that he could be seen as a political failure if he can’t hold local elections on May 14. Deuba, on the other hand, wants Prachanda to quickly be done with the local election so that he may then get to become the prime minister. Besides, the Election Commission has indicated that if there is no election on May 14, it will have a direct impact on the other two elections.

The current plan is to hold local elections in two phases: the first phase on May 14 in three hill provinces and the second phase, a month later on June 14, in the four remaining provinces. Holding the second phase in base areas of Madhesi parties will also give them enough time to prepare.

But even for this there first has to be a prior agreement with both the Federal Alliance and the newly created RJPN. And these outfits won’t agree to go to election unless they get a credible face-saver in the form of amendment of the constitution in line with their demands.

The other option is to hold all three sets of elections in one go sometime before January 2018. Doing so, says the Election Commission, will be impossible. The Supreme Court has also ruled out any such extension of the election schedule. But if there is broad political understanding on the country’s future political course, the count could yet relent.

Danger zone

Perhaps the most dangerous option is for the government to push ahead with the May 14 election without amending the constitution. Even though the Madhesi parties have rolled back their protests targeting the May 14 vote, they say they will revive their protest plans if there is no favourable constitution amendment.

Thus the option of two-phase election, with the first phase on May 14, is still the most desirable. It won’t be wise to postpone the May 14 election as there is great public support for it, even in the Madhesi plains. This is because there has been no local election in Nepal since 1997. In the absence of elected office-bearers at the local level, people have had to face great hardships in getting even basic services like the making of birth and death certificates. As the unelected local bureaucrats are not accountable to anyone, corruption has flourished. The culture of sharing the spoils of corruption in the absence of elected officials has also meant that local-level development works that have a direct impact on people’s day-to-day lives – like the construction of small drinking-water and irrigation projects – have stalled.

Also, the local level units envisioned by the new constitution will have vastly greater power than the ones they replace. For instance, they will now be able to make their own school syllabus in locally-spoken languages. They will have their own police and courts, and run their own schools and hospitals. This is why people are excited about the impending local election that promises to bring governance and service delivery to their doorsteps.

Any future local election will also be inclusive. As many as half of all those elected in local elections this time will be women and marginalised communities will also be more represented.

It will be cruel to postpone the May 14 election and extinguish the great hope people have pinned on it. They fear that if the May 14 vote is now postponed, their long and at times painful wait for elected office-bearers will be prolonged indefinitely.

In their hearts perhaps all Madhesi politicians know that people are in favour of a timely election. This explains their ‘expansion campaigns’ right across Tarai-Madhes in the past few weeks; the behind-the-scenes jockeying for candidacy in Madhesi parties ahead of the May 14 election; and, of course, the latest mergers. These parties, in other words, are also silently preparing for elections, even though they might not admit to it openly.

Stark options

There are already signs that the latest agreement between the government and the RJPN could fall through. Under UML pressure, the government has withdrawn its proposal to increase the number of local level units in Tarai-Madhes, which was among the key agreements between the government and Madhes-based parties. RJPN now accuses the ruling coalition of betraying it and is again threatening to boycott the local election.

Both UML and Madhesi parties sticking to their guns does not portend well for Nepal. UML would do well to give up its ultra-nationalist, polarising stand. It’s portrayal of even genuine Madhesi demands as constituting an existential threat to Nepal’s existence is greatly exaggerated and only complicates the prolonged political crisis.

The Madhesi outfits, for their part, should not constantly shift goalposts and thus needlessly complicate negotiations. They must also realise that in Nepal’s polarised polity, any progress will be incremental and they cannot expect immediate settlement of all their issues.

Nepal faces a stark choice. The alternative to an immediate political settlement and timely local election – widespread electoral violence, the rise of extremist forces, the possibility of foreign powers calling the shots and eventual failure of the constitution – are too scary to even contemplate. Crucially, none of these options are even remotely beneficial for the democratic parties who are currently trying to secure a negotiated settlement from within the new constitution.

Biswas Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist who writes on Nepal’s foreign policy. He tweets @biswasktm.

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