The Pulse

Nepal’s Elections Hang in the Balance

Despite hope that Nepal’s crawl toward democracy will continue, uncertainty and infighting persist.

Nepal is potentially closer to finding a way out of the political paralysis that has gripped the country for the past year. Thanks to recent developments, there is hope the country may hold an election by mid-June for a new Constituent Assembly (CA). However, roadblocks remain.

All of the nation’s major political parties have agreed in principle to form an interim government headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Khil Raj Regmi, and his council of ministers. This tentative arrangement entails constitutional amendments. The present interim constitution does not allow a provisional government headed by a Chief Justice.

Since the CA was dissolved in May of last year, the country has been without a functional government. The two mainstream political parties, namely, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), have never recognized the authority of the caretaker Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai from the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). They were always at loggerheads about conducting an election under the authority of the Maoist leader.

Although Bhattarai twice announced potential election dates, the lack of consensus amongst political parties blocked his attempts. The discordance hindered efforts to draft a new constitution.

The bickering among political parties slowed the process of ushering in a new era of democracy in Nepal after the rebel Maoists signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006, surrendered their arms and joined the political mainstream. The agreement led to the abolition of a monarchy that stretched back more than two centuries.

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Subsequently, elections for the CA were held in 2008. CA members were tasked with drafting a new constitution within two years. Unfortunately, the CA failed to complete the task because of deep political and ideological differences among parties. The CA was finally dissolved in May of last year.

Many see a new election as the only way out of the present deadlock. But 26 million Nepalese are scratching their heads over how this election will come about. Further, many are concerned over the decision to appoint the Chief Justice as the head of an interim government. It is highly unlikely that he can bring together the clashing political parties. This has led many to doubt that elections will be held in June.

Writing in Nepali Times, Anurag Acharya says that this is undoubtedly a desperate move by parties working at cross purposes, driven by their single-minded obsession with power.

Doubts have also been raised about bringing a judicial figure into the political domain. Since Pushpa Kamal Dahal (a.k.a. Prachanda), the Chief of the Maoist party, proposed the idea to appoint the Chief Justice to the role of interim Prime Minister, some suspect that the move is part of a Maoist conspiracy to coopt the judiciary.

According to an editorial published in the Nepali Times, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai has agreed to step down in favor of Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi and will lead an Interim Election Council that will hold elections in June, blurring the separation of powers between the executive and judiciary branches of the government.

“It was a proposal by one party that wanted to remove the last remaining hurdle in its quest for absolute power,” the editorial in the Nepali Times states. “After dissolving the assembly, buying into media, coopting the police, appeasing the army, infiltrating the bureaucracy, only the Supreme Court was standing in the way.”

On the other hand, the New York Times reports that the deal among political parties has failed due to the Maoist insistence on receiving amnesty for past crimes.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reports that some accounts suggest the Chief Justice has expressed reservations about the conditions and composition of the interim council. He is reported to have asked the political parties to give him a free hand in choosing his leadership team.

Other issues include the requirement that voting citizens have a photo-ID and the re-demarcation of constituencies to reflect the 2011 census.

Ultimately, Nepal’s tryst with democracy has been painful and uncertain. Yet, the former kingdom's transition is of wider interest to the whole of South Asia.

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In the book Nepal in Transition, Sebastian Von Einsiedel, David M Malone and Suman Pradhan write: “Nepal represents a microcosm of the wider geopolitical struggle playing out in the region…. It holds valuable lessons for other countries beset by insurgency.”