Caught Between Two Phases of Local Elections, Nepal Must Act Fast

With the coalition of Madhesi parties saying it will boycott the local elections – Nepal's first in 20 years – the political elite must do what it can to convince it to be a part of the process.

An official from the election commission pours the ballot papers from the box, as officials start counting the votes, a day after the local election of municipalities and villages representatives in Kathmandu, Nepal, May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Kathmandu: The decision of the caretaker government of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as ‘Prachanda’, to postpone by two weeks the second phase of the local elections – after the first phase was successfully held on May 14 – is reflective of the broad desire to make the elections inclusive. The second phase was originally scheduled for June 14 but the government decided to postpone it, first, by a week. The goal was to give the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN), the new coalition of six small Madhesi parties, enough time to register with the election commission and take part in the second phase. The RJPN had opted out of the first phase as it held mostly in hilly areas where it has little or no influence.

After initially rescheduling the second phase for June 23, the government had to push it back further, to June 28, at the request of the Muslim community in Nepal, since June 23 is the last Friday of the month of Ramadan.

The first phase of local elections, held in three of the seven federal provinces, was undoubtedly a resounding success, with 71% turnout. The great public enthusiasm has put the Madhesi parties, which have been protesting the ‘discriminatory’ constitution, in a quandary. The Madhesi still have unresolved constitutional issues, but if they boycott and disrupt the election, as some have vowed to do, they could find themselves further marginalised, as the big parties consolidate their position in Tarai-Madhes.

The decision of the two big Madhes-based parties – the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum Loktantrik, led by Bijaya Kumar Gachachadar, and the Federal Socialist Forum, led by Upendra Yadav, which aren’t a part of the RJPN – to take part in the local election has further increased pressure on the RJPN.

Matter of principle

The newly-formed RJPN continues to demand that the constitution first be amended before it joins the electoral process. This could prove to be a risky strategy. While the traditionally marginalised Madhesis and Janajatis might still have grievances against the Kathmandu elite and the constitution it pushed, they would also like to see the local elections being held at the earliest.

Unlike the provincial and federal elections, local elections have a direct bearing on their daily lives. Yet, no local elections have been held in Nepal for nearly two decades. In the absence of elected local officials, corruption flourished and people could not even register marriages or deaths without greasing the palms of bureaucrats. Moreover, most funds allocated for local development disappeared into the pockets of local bureaucrats and unelected representatives of national political parties, and very little was actually spent on intended development works like schools, health posts and roads.

This is why public pressure for timely local elections had been steadily building. The Madhesi parties understood this very well. But while Gachachadar and Yadav were willing to participate in the second phase of the local elections even without any prior amendment, the RJPN continued to resist in the belief that Gachachadar and Yadav would be ‘exposed’ in Madhes as the stooges of the ruling class in Kathmandu.

The RJPN was at first banking on Yadav, the more principled of the two and arguably the strongest Madhesi leader to emerge from the 2006 political changes, joining them in boycotting the second phase of the election. By contrast, Gachachadar, a four-time deputy prime minister, has always been seen as an establishment figure, ready to do whatever it takes to get into government.

If the RJPN continues to stick to its boycott stance, it risks being overshadowed by the two big Madhesi parties, and the national parties, in its own backyard. Yet, the RJPN constituent parties continue to believe that common Madhesis support their demand of prior constitutional settlement.

The RJPN seems to be fighting a lost battle. India had fully supported the border-centrist protests of the Madhesi parties in 2015-16, which resulted in nearly five months of blockade at India-Nepal border. In fact, without India’s support, and with the size of Madhesi parties greatly reduced after the second constituent assembly election in 2013, their protests could have quickly fizzled out.

But India seems to have had a change of heart lately. When the RJPN leaders recently visited the Indian embassy asking for India’s continued support for their protests, Manjeet Singh Puri, India’s new ambassador to Nepal, clearly urged them to take part in the local elections and to try to establish their agendas though the electoral route.

This is why it is widely believed in Kathmandu that the RJPN will, in the end, have no option but to take part in the second phase, even though most of its demands, including for more local level units in Tarai-Madhes, will go unfulfilled.

Deuba’s burdens

Sher Bahadur Deuba, the leader of the Nepali Congress, the largest parliamentary party, is expected to take over as prime minister in the next few days. It looks like the current coalition of the Nepali Congress and Prachanda’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre), and a few other fringe parties, will remain intact. Yet Deuba, now tasked with holding the second phase of local elections, and the provincial and federal elections, all within the next nine months, is likely to have his task cut out.

This is also because the Supreme Court has ruled that the boundaries of local level units cannot be changed between the two phases of local elections, without which it will be hard to convince the RJPN.

But what happens if the government goes ahead with the elections without the support of the RJPN? Again, most analysts in Kathmandu seem to believe that with both Yadav and Gachachadar on board, and given the popularity of local election in Tarai-Madhes, the RJPN strategy of boycott and disruption of local election could backfire.

Yet, we can’t forget that one reason the RJPN has continued to hold out, despite considerable pressures on them to compromise, both from in and outside Nepal, is that its constituent parties still strongly believe in the sanctity of their demands. And their demands continue to find resonance among many Madhesis, especially the young and educated ones who feel left out of the political mainstream. The risk is that they could gravitate to extremist forces that are campaigning for the entire Tarai-Madhes belt as a separate country.

Given how much people have suffered over the years in the absence of elections, there can be no justification for putting it off any further. Since the Supreme Court has precluded any possibility of amending the constitution before the second phase of local elections, and since the ruling coalition also doesn’t have the votes in parliament to push such amendments, the best course of action would be to somehow convince the RJPN to take part in the second phase. But the RJPN first needs a credible face saver.

This face-saver can come in the form of a written assurance from at least three of the major parties – which between them have over 80% of parliamentary seats – that the process of constitution amendment will start as soon as the second phase of local elections is over. If such an assurance were to be made, RJPN leaders have hinted that they will join the election process. The other option is to temporarily suspend the election code of conduct so that the constitution can be amended, in which case the RJPN might even join the new Deuba government.

But with less than a month to go for the June 28 second round vote, the prime minister-in-waiting must hurry up.

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