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Nepal: Surge of Optimism

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By Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

In a remarkable achievement after decades of turmoil, the Himalayan Nation remained completely free of insurgency-related violence through 2013. Militant violence has registered a constant decline since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2006, but it is for the first time since March 2000, when the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database commenced compiling data on insurgency-related fatalities in Nepal, that the country did not record a single insurgency-related incident during the course of a year.

According to partial data compiled by the SATP, the country witnessed 11 fatalities (10 civilians and one Jantantrik Terai Mukti Morcha cadre) in six such incidents in 2012. At its peak in 2002, the insurgency saw 4,896 persons, including 3,992 Maoists, 666 Security Force personnel and 238 civilians, killed in a single year.

In a worrying development, however, political violence did increase considerably during 2013. Activists of political parties clashed with each other on at least 22 occasions resulting in four deaths and 167 injuries. There were four such incidents resulting in seven injuries and no fatalities in 2012. Further, activists of political parties clashed with law enforcement personnel on at least four occasions in 2013, with 14 persons injured.

Moreover, till the fag-end of 2013, the political environment remained extremely volatile, with a looming threat of violent escalation. Indeed, the clouds of political uncertainty that had enveloped Nepal in 2012, after the dramatic gains of 2011, had deepened, exasperating the political class. Political developments thereafter have, however, made freedom from insurgency-related violence sustainable, even as they have resulted in a diminution in political violence itself.

The successful holding of elections for the second Constituent Assembly (CA) on November 19, 2013, was the critical development that transformed the political environment of the country, despite repeated delays, hiccups and rising bitterness in some political formations during the run-up to the elections. Eventually, a voter turnout of 78.34 per cent conferred tremendous legitimacy on the process, and this could not be undermined by the angry reactions of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist (UCPN-M) who were smarting under the brutal electoral rebuff they received. Under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, the Nepali Congress (NC) won largest number of seats, 105; followed by the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), 91; with the UCPN-M getting just 26. The NC got an additional 91 seats under the proportional representation (PR) system; the CPN-UML got 84 PR seats and the UCPN-M, 54. The NC consequently emerged as the largest party in the 601-member CA, with 196 seats; followed by CPN-UML at 175 seats; and UCPN-M with 80 seats.  The often strident and disruptive Madhesi parties have, however, been substantially marginalized, securing just 53 seats (12 under FPTP system and 41 under PR system).

On January 3, 2014, the Election Commission submitted the list of 240 lawmakers elected under the FPTP electoral system and 335 lawmakers under the PR system. The remaining 26 members of the 601-member CA will be nominated by the Cabinet, once formed. The submission was delayed because of the UCPN-M’s earlier decision not to submit names for its PR seats. The party had alleged that the elections were not fairly conducted and had challenged the veracity of the results.

Significantly, in the last CA elections held in 2008, the CPN-Maoist (the parent party of the present UCPN-M) had emerged as the largest party in the CA, securing 229 seats (120 FPTP, 100 PR and nine nominated); followed by NC, with 115 seats (37 FPTP, 73 PR and five nominated); and CPN-UML, with 108 seats (33 FPTP, 70 PR and five nominated).

Clearly, the UCPN-M faced a rout in the recent elections. Party Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda's personal loss from Kathmandu Constituency No. 10, would have been unimaginable a few months earlier, despite the considerable weakening of the party following the vertical split in June 2012. Clearly, as of now, the party has lost its pole position in Nepali politics. The Maoists had emerged as the main political force in Nepal after the signing of the CPA in 2006 and the subsequent 2008 polls for the first CA.

Eventually accepting the current ground realities, the Maoists, who had boycotted the counting of votes, later retracted from their defiant position and confirmed that they would cooperate with the new Government in framing of the new Constitution. This is a major development, since UCPN-M, in the past, had created many unwarranted obstacles in the writing of the Constitution and had repeatedly threatened to go back to the ‘path of revolution’. With diminishing influence and its own willing participation in the electoral process, it cannot credibly threaten the prevailing peace. In a more recent setback, differences have emerged between Prachanda and senior party leader and former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, in the aftermath of the electoral debacle. The differences widened further over the selection of candidates by the party leadership under the PR system. As of now, however, Bhattarai has declared that he has no intention of splitting the party, though he has warned of 'serious consequences' if Prachanda continues with his "undemocratic working style".

Crucially, the failure of the Mohan Baidya-led faction of the CPN-Maoist to obstruct the elections, or even to significantly impact on the process, despite constant threats and full-throttle opposition, demonstrated that this group is also a spent force, with little current capacity to adversely influence the relative stability that prevails in the country. 

These developments have thus created ample opportunity for the two main parties – NC and CPN-UML - to complete the process of drafting the Constitution to place Nepal squarely on the path of establishing a strong democratic system. There are, of course, some contentious issues that will need to be thrashed out, including, inter alia, the question of the form of governance and federalism. Given the appreciable political maturity these two parties have demonstrated over the past few years, it is expected that these issues may be solved sooner rather than later.

Initial hurdles, however, remain. The first and foremost is the confrontation between President Ram Baran Yadav and the Chairman of the Interim Election Government, Khilraj Regmi, about who will call the first meeting of the second CA. Though the President is reported to have now agreed to allow Regmi to call the meeting, the final word on the issue is yet to be spoken. According to Article 69 of the Interim Constitution, the first meeting of the elected CA should be convened within 21 days of submission of the final list of CA members to the President. It is, of course, anticipated that this confrontation will play itself out within a few days, and the meeting will be called.

Nevertheless, with no party securing a clear majority, the fractured mandate in the CA elections is expectedly creating challenges in Government formation. While the CPN-UML wants the issue of power sharing - including a division of the top posts of President, Vice President, Prime Minister, Speaker and Chairman of the Constitutional Committee among the major political parties – to be decided first, the NC is giving little importance to this issue. On January 8, 2014, NC President Sushil Koirala, when asked to comment on CPN-UML's call for a concrete proposal on power sharing, responded, “What is a concrete proposal? I am not sure. I am not convinced why some parties are unnecessarily propping up the issue of power sharing. The Constitution drafting process is my top priority.” Optimistically, he added, “Political developments are heading in a positive direction and I am hopeful that the CA will convene on time and gradually the government formation process will take shape." He did, nevertheless, concede, "Without consensus among the major parties, it is difficult to write the Constitution. So it’s not a time to distrust any political force. No single party can meet the current challenges before the nation by stonewalling the other.” Again on January 10, 2014, NC leader Ram Sharan Mahat claimed that leaders of both parties – NC and CPN-UML- had already begun talks on government formation, and asserted that a new government led by his party would be formed by the first week of February 2014.

The CA elections have been a powerful lesson to all political formations in Nepal, with a clear popular mandate against the fractious and obstructive politics of the past. Any political party choosing to ignore the public mood can only attract further, and potentially permanent marginalization. While the mandate remains somewhat fractured, it has created conditions that, with a measure of political sagacity on the part of the main players, could result not only in stable arrangements for governance, but, crucially, a final resolution of the issues that have obstructed the drafting of the Constitution.

[Source: SATP]

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