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Commentary on Nepal’s Upcoming Constituent Asssembly Elections of 19 November 2013

7 November 2013

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AP Photo from Financial Times

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The News York Times, November 6, 2013

In Fractured Nepal, Plans for National Elections Provide a Series of Subplots


KATMANDU, Nepal — Nepal’s former first lady insisted that she was not a crook.

“If you read the newspapers, you’d think I was the most corrupt woman in Nepal,” said Hisila Yami, a Maoist leader and the wife of a former prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai.

Now that the Maoists have given up bank robbery, kidnapping and extortion, money is harder to come by, she acknowledged as she peeled off bills from a huge wad in her purse to give to campaign workers.

“People gave us money earlier out of fear, but they don’t do that now,” she said with a shrug. “We have to be appealing now. We have to be nice. We can’t afford to antagonize people now.”

So Ms. Yami was squinting at shadows recently as she held campaign gatherings in living rooms darkened by routine power failures. She insisted to those gathered about her feet that all the stories of hidden wealth and secret efforts to undermine her husband when he was in office were just vicious rumors.

“People think I had a lot of money, cars and homes, but that is not true,” she said, exuding an energetic charisma that lit up the room like a flashlight. “When my husband was prime minister, I tried to help him. But people think I tried to overtake him.”

After decades of political upheaval and paralysis, Nepal is scheduled to hold national elections on Nov. 19. Yet, with more than a dozen political parties — including an important Maoist group — boycotting the vote, there is some doubt that they will occur, but top officials say the country has no choice.

“There is no Plan B,” said Madhab Paudel, Nepal’s minister of information and communication. “We have no option except conducting the election.”

There is a growing consensus here that the only way to arrest the country’s disastrous economic spiral is through elections. More than 120 political parties have registered to compete, and hope — long in as short supply as oxygen on nearby Mount Everest — is flourishing. Some of the most colorful candidates in the world are now crisscrossing this mountainous nation.

Nepal, ruled for centuries by monarchs, has 125 ethnic groups, 127 spoken languages, scores of castes and three distinct ecosystems that have long divided its 27 million people into a blinding array of feuding communities, making political consensus difficult.

A 10-year civil war between the Maoists and the government ended in 2006, but the resulting Constituent Assembly spent four years trying to write a constitution without success, leading to political paralysis. This month’s election is intended to create a second Constituent Assembly to finish the constitution.

The election’s most intriguing subplot is among the Maoists, who divided last year over whether war is still an acceptable political strategy. The hard-line faction, widely referred to as Dashist because of a dash in its name (Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist), is boycotting the elections and has called for a 10-day strike beginning Nov. 11.

“Our intention is to prevent people from participating in the election,” said Pampha Bhusal, a Dashist politburo member.

Just how far Ms. Bhusal’s group will go to prevent voting is the season’s great mystery. Ms. Bhusal insisted that her party will not resort to violence again, but instead will seek to “convince” people not to vote.

“Everybody’s one concern is security, which is unpredictable,” said Ila Sharma, a commissioner on Nepal’s Election Commission. One candidate has already been killed.

And then there is Ms. Yami’s party, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), whose nickname is the Cashist party because of the vast sums of money, cars, houses and property its leaders are rumored to have stolen during the country’s 10-year insurgency. Like rich Communists elsewhere, Cashists have become deeply attached to capitalism. “Even in China, capitalism is thriving in its own way,” Ms. Yami said.

While Nepal’s main parties disagree fiercely over many things, Ms. Yami said, the embrace of democracy is now widely shared. “Usually the hard-core Communists don’t go for things like bourgeois elections,” she said with a laugh. “We were just in the jungle four or five years ago, and now we’re sounding more democratic than the democrats.”

But the tentative nature of Nepal’s democracy means that bribery and extortion, common tools during the insurgency, have not disappeared. In interviews, businessmen in Nepal said they routinely received letters demanding money from political parties, some of which still maintain private armies. If they refuse to pay — required donations range from $1,000 to $5,000, depending on the size of the business — they are told they will suffer serious vandalism or violence, they said.

“The consequence is as simple as it is dramatic,” said one top Nepali businessman who asked to remain anonymous for fear of spurring further violence. “They will disrupt your business, damage your property and perhaps do violence to you and your employees. They’re fairly open about it when they need to be.”

Neel Kantha Uprety, the country’s chief election commissioner, said that vote buying was widely accepted in Nepal, and that eliminating the practice would take time and education. “We do not have a culture of democracy,” Mr. Uprety said.

The principal disagreements among the parties are whether to adopt the American, French or British governance models and how to split the country into states.

The Cashists want an executive presidency similar to that in the United States, although none would admit to copying the United States since, well, they are Maoists. The Marxist-Leninists want a French system with shared power between a president and prime minister, but they, too, denied any hint of foreign influence.

“We don’t call it a French model,” said Pramesh Hamal, a leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist). “But you can explain it yourself as near to the French model.”

Whether the parties will reconcile these divergent visions in the next Constituent Assembly after failing to do so in the last is anybody’s guess. In multiple interviews, Nepalis expressed a mixture of hope and despair about their future.

“It’s all a mess,” Sajan Shakya, 22, said as he sat with a friend near one of Nepal’s ancient Hindu temples.

But Gopal Tamkakar, a 58-year-old merchant, said he was optimistic. “Things will be calmer once they draft a constitution,” he said. “You have to have hope.”

A struggle for influence between India and China is another of the election’s subtexts. The Maoists, who had the most seats in the previous assembly, favor China. The Nepali Congress party favors India. In a wide-ranging interview, Ms. Bhusal of the Dashists repeatedly denounced India’s influence over the coming elections.

“Every decision now is being made by an international power,” she said with some fervor. Which power? “India! They are all acting on behalf of India!”

Nepal has enormous potential as a source of hydroelectric power, something both India and China covet. But the country has been in disarray for so long that diplomats in Katmandu rolled their eyes at the oft-expressed fear that some foreign power is itching to take Nepal over.

Nonetheless, India plays a dominant role. Bollywood movies are wildly popular, tens of millions of ethnic Nepalis live in India and the country depends entirely on India for fuel and other necessities. But Nepal’s time zone is 15 minutes ahead of India’s, a telling indicator of the country’s fierce attachment to its own independence.

International aid organizations have poured into Nepal in recent months, hoping this election may finally serve as a national turning point. On any given day, the traffic circle in front of the Nepal Election Commission is clogged with giant S.U.V.s sporting the emblems of many national aid agencies — including China’s.

Many of these organizations have helped resolve significant technical challenges. Quickly retrieving ballot boxes from the highest elevations in the world will be no small feat. And since half of Nepalis are illiterate, paper ballots have become poster-sized collections of symbols: rabbit, butterfly, flashlight and soccer ball, among more than 100 others.

The Chinese have not provided technical assistance, “since their own experience with elections is limited,” Mr. Uprety said with only the barest smile. “But we are getting their best wishes along with their logistical support.”

Asia Times, 6 November 2013

Apprehension and hope over Nepal vote

by Liam Anderson

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Nepal’s long-awaited Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, set for November 19, offer the potential to break the political deadlock that has beset the country since the assembly was dissolved last May and put post-war peace and state building back on track.

Campaigns are underway, nominations have been registered, and parties have announced their manifestos. These target large economic growth, but the country faces several major issues, including ethno-national divisions and vulnerable minority rights, post-war reconciliation and war-time crimes prosecution, balancing relations with its two large neighbors, and poor infrastructure and unemployment.

Dissolution and deadlock

Since the end of the civil war in 2006, Nepal has suffered from political wrangling, with periods of near-complete impasse and others of more successful compromise. The CA was established in 2008 to create a new constitution and system of government. It was extended several times from its original deadline in 2010, becoming more distant from support on the ground, and its tenure finally expired in May 2012.

While significant progress was made on contentious issues in the months before its expiry, the parties were unable to come to a conclusive agreement on the constitution before the Supreme Court’s final deadline.

In the aftermath, political gridlock returned. Elections were announced for later the same year in order to establish a new government to finish the CA’s work. As the CA’s dissolution was rejected by some, and there was much disagreement over the composition of the government which would lead Nepal into elections, these elections were delayed until finally being established in mid-2013 for November 19.

Since the CA’s end, little progress has been achieved. The near-failure to agree a government budget in November 2012, which would have severely hurt Nepal’s already troubled economy, illustrated the extent of inter-party stalemate.

The four main forces are the "mainstream" Maoist party (UCPN-M), which was by far the largest in the 2008 elections; the Nepal Congress (NC); the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML); and the Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha (SLMM) front of Madhesi parties. The political impasse, especially after the CA dissolved, has been exacerbated by individual ambitions and changing alliances, which only undermines their public credibility.

The most contentious post-war issue was originally the peaceful integration of the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army into either the Nepali military or civilian life. This has now largely been concluded, with a comparatively small number joining the military and many others accepting other agreements or being disqualified from such processes. However, discontented ex-combatants, a number of whom now support the hardliner CPN-M party which split from the main UCPN-M after the CA’s demise, may stage protests or play a political role in the future.

The issue which then came to dominate political disagreement was identity-based federalism. It is such a powerful issue because many groups felt marginalized in the past by upper-caste Hindu Nepali predominance and are now anxious to ensure they are not forgotten in making the new state. There is much division over the structure of federalism, and some are fearful of losing out in this change.

There are difficulties with implementing federalism, particularly the need to find state boundaries and names taht are equally inclusive of Nepal’s diverse population. Given the ethnically Nepali-dominated history of the country and its widespread support, though, it would be difficult and electorally risky for major parties to ignore it. The UML and NC have been skeptical, but identity-based federalism is backed by the UCPN-M and Madhesi parties and by other smaller groups.

Security risks

Numerous incidents of election-related violence, and other protests, have been reported - for example, a UML candidate was reportedly shot in early October - and there is a real risk that violence could escalate around and during the polls.

The most likely sources of disruption are: from groups protesting the elections which may target polling stations, especially the CPN-M; between supporters of rival participating parties; and other armed groups, particularly in the southern Tarai region. The easily crossed Indo-Nepal border is to be sealed from November 18 to 20 to prevent people or arms smuggling during the elections.

The government has reportedly decided that, unlike during the 2008 CA elections, it will deploy the army in significant numbers for security. While security must be ensured, however, there is a danger that this may escalate any incidents, or even "invite" violence.

Prachanda, the UCPN-M’s chairman, has also reportedly called for party activists to retaliate to any attacks against elections, which may be ominous for inter-party clashes, particularly with CPN-M cadres.

The CPN-M and a number of smaller parties have continued to reject elections, although some at least have agreed to participate after talks. CPN-M leaders announced that talks to bring them on board had failed as they suspected heavy foreign interference, and they did not recognize the interim government.

The CPN-M intends to "actively boycott" elections and it is possible that it may later use its non-participation to dispute the results. This rejection of elections, despite inter-party talks, is worrying for stability, and efforts for dialogue with dissident parties must continue. However, Nepalis cannot wait indefinitely for elections, imperfect as they may be, and an end to political stagnation.

Electoral calculation

It is a sign of political splintering that many more parties have registered for these elections than those of 2008. As an incredibly diverse country, this has been a perhaps inevitable result of the drawn-out post-conflict peace process and constitution writing, especially after the first CA’s dissolution. As Nepal’s political future remained uncertain for longer and longer, divisions within the large parties deepened and smaller groups became more active, disillusioned with the main parties. This division made decision-making even more difficult, and saw heightened communal tensions.

Representation is a key issue for Nepal, of minorities, women, LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) groups, Dalits, and others. Major parties should, for inclusivity and popular support, aim to politically represent these groups as much as possible. Accessible, effective local government would be an important measure to address underlying communal divisions, which have continued to shape political dynamics and tensions.

The proliferation of smaller ethnic or local parties is related to this, and they may gain more electoral presence if popular disillusionment with the main parties worsens and they are perceived to have not sufficiently addressed issues relevant to them, such as language rights.

After the years of slow inter-party negotiations, many Nepalis may be tired of the main political actors. Added to factionalism and splits in the major parties, the upcoming polls may well show more divided results. However, hopefully a newly-elected government can rejuvenate negotiations and induce cooperation between the major parties, giving them some sense of unity of purpose.

The UCPN-M seems likely to remain the largest single party, although perhaps without as large a lead as last time; an important question is who would join it to form a government? The previous Maoist-Madhesi alliance was strong. The Madhesi parties are prone to division, though, and may struggle to present a strong united front. Despite factionalism and losing some minority members, the NC and UML remain major parties. The unlikelihood of a single-party majority, and inevitable coalition-making, will pose many post-elections calculations for the parties.

Coalitions will probably be shaped by the larger parties, but if the UCPN-M manages to achieve a near-majority, small parties could take an important role. Among the smaller parties many are identity-based, but monarchists and Hindu nationalists remain, if quite marginally, and hope to fare better this time.

Whatever the result, the Nepali people are in dire need of stability, development, a political class that prioritizes their needs, governmental inclusiveness and a peace process that works.

More work to be done

Once the elections are completed, parties will resume the tough tasks of constitution-writing and deciding the government and state structure, including federalism and presidential powers. It is crucial for the parties to sincerely compromise, so as to avoid simply moving from a standoff over elections to one over the constitution. Nepal’s ever-looming neighbors, India and China, will watch the elections unfold carefully, wary of volatility at their borders.

There remains much work to do for durable political stability, but successful elections are an important and now necessary step in this direction. While the main parties have suffered splits and have had since May 2012 to diverge further on key issues, and smaller parties have multiplied, hopefully a widely-accepted CA will offer the opportunity to Nepal’s parties to finish the constitution and start building a stable, inclusive state.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online’s regular contributors.

Liam Anderson graduated from Sciences Po with a Master’s in International Affairs with a focus on South Asia.

(Copyright 2013 Liam Anderson)