In Nepal, the quest for April elections
By PRASHANT JHA:
Seven months after the term of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) ended without delivering a constitution, Nepali politicians agree that fresh elections to a new CA must be held in April-May 2013. But unlike functional democratic set-ups, the issue of how to get to elections has polarised Nepali polity.
Here is the problem. The interim constitution does not envisage a second CA poll. To amend the constitution, President Ram Baran Yadav needs to use his constitutional “power to remove obstacles,” on the recommendation of the Council of Ministers.
President Yadav has refused to exercise this power and asked for a political consensus first. This is elusive since the Opposition parties, led by the Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), have demanded that they be given the leadership of the government. The ruling Federal Democratic Republican Alliance (FDRA), of the Maoists and Madhesi parties, has instead urged the Opposition to join the Baburam Bhattarai-led government. Elections announced for November 22 could not be held. And the possibility of April polls is getting increasingly slim.
Claiming his intention was to resolve the deadlock, President Yadav called for a consensus Prime Minister on November 23. The move triggered off events and has dragged the office of the President into a controversy.
Opposition parties put forward the NC president, Sushil Koirala, as their prime ministerial candidate. The NC’s claim for leadership rests on two grounds — that both the Maoists and the UML have led two governments each since 2008 and now it is the NC’s “turn”; and an agreement in May had provided for the NC leading the election government.
These are shaky grounds. All governments since 2008 have been elected by a majority on the floor of the house. Asking for leadership in the spirit of consensus is based on selective amnesia when the NC has been at the forefront of opposing any Maoist-led government. The May agreement promised the NC leadership, but only after constitutional issues were agreed upon. The Maoists and Madhesi parties in government blame the NC’s opposition to identity-based federalism for the failure to draft a constitution, and claim the pact is not relevant anymore.
While critics have blamed Maoists for the impasse, party chairman Prachanda has been active in putting out one proposal after another to break the deadlock.
Soon after the CA ended, he suggested that parties should try to find a middle way on issues of the constitution, revive the CA, and promulgate the constitution. The Maoists agreed to postpone the specifics of federalism, as long as the different models on the table were attached as an annex to the constitution. But both the NC and President Yadav were opposed to the CA’s revival, which buried the idea.
The Maoists then urged the Opposition to join the Bhattarai cabinet, since there was no legitimate way to replace the Prime Minister in the absence of parliament. To allay apprehensions that Maoists would misuse state apparatus during elections, Mr. Prachanda offered the home ministry to the NC, and the finance ministry to the UML. He also asked the NC to appoint its nominee as the chief election commissioner. The Opposition however rejected this possibility too.
The Maoist-Madhesi alliance suspects that the NC only seeks government leadership, and will not hold timely CA polls. That is why they have said they would accept Sushil Koirala as the prime minister, only as a part of a “package deal.”
This deal, according to the FDRA, should include the date of elections, the election system and number of seats, the way to clear constitutional and legal hurdles, and how to fill vacancies in constitutional offices including the Election Commission, which will be left with no commissioners by January, and the Supreme Court, which is operating with less than half of its bench strength. Additionally, there must be a mechanism to preserve the work that has been done by the last CA, even if contentious issues like federalism are to be decided later. The NC has rejected the idea of a package deal too.
Mr. Prachanda has floated two other ideas — that of either a Madhesi leader as prime minister, or a neutral figure leading a political cabinet to hold elections. The Opposition is not in favour of either option.
In all of this, an additional complication is the internal politics of the Maoists. The party is holding a general convention in early February, and leaders do not want to rock the boat till then. Mr. Prachanda wishes to be elected as chairman unopposed, and making any compromise that will antagonise Mr. Bhattarai will create complications for him. Despite their flexible stance in public, the Maoist attitudes have hardened in recent days since they do not want status quo to be disturbed till then.
The President’s third deadline to the parties to come up with a prime ministerial candidate ends on Wednesday. Dr. Yadav has got into a self-made trap. He cannot backtrack, but neither can he take any other step for in the absence of a parliament, there is no other way to select a prime minister. He has already flirted dangerously with constitutional limits, and will create a new crisis with any unilateral move.
Unless political and constitutional hurdles are cleared by December-end, the EC has ruled out elections in April. If they are not held in spring, the political deadlock could continue through all of next year with the monsoon, harvest season, festival cycles and winter hampering the election schedule.
With their failure to draft a constitution, the relentless power games, abysmal governance, and fractured party organisations, all Nepali political forces appear to be scared of returning to the voter. But there is no alternative but to seek popular mandate to resolve the current crisis, and restore legitimacy to the post-2006 framework. The onus lies largely on the Opposition to shed its singular obsession with the prime minister’s chair, and partly on the Maoists to not let their internal party matters hold the country hostage. The focus instead should be on how to create conditions for free and fair elections in spring 2013.