KATHMANDU — For the first time in 20 years, Nepalis will go to the ballot box on May 14 to elect local officials, marking a significant step in consummating the Constitution passed in September 2015. But they will do so without the consent of the ethnic groups from Nepal’s southern plains, the Madhesis, who protested their under-representation in the Constitution and government with a six-month border blockade in 2015 and 2016. Their protest cut off trade with India, prevented essential supplies like petrol, gas cooking bottles, and medicine from entering the country, and crippled the Nepali economy.
When Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal announced the election date on February 20, he initiated a crucial countdown for Nepali democracy to forge ahead. Successful local elections this spring will pave the way for provincial and national elections in the fall, marking a return to the democratic process after two decades of upheaval – a ten-year civil war, and a drawn-out transition period. As mandated by the Constitution, all three levels of elections must be conducted by January 21, 2018.
“These elections are historic because they have the real potential to reduce political marginalization for the first time in Nepal and to return government to all of its people,” said Dr. George Varughese, the Nepal Country Representative for the Asia Foundation.
But in the next two months, a lot needs to happen for a successful election, the least of which is avoiding conflict in the southern plains, where over half of the country’s population resides. The Nepal Election Commission is also scrambling to prepare for a vote that will be conducted under redefined local boundaries and laws as per the Constitution. The coming months will be a crucial test for Nepali democracy and the Constitution, resulting in either a democratically elected government across the country or a continuation of the instability that has plagued the nation since the advent of democracy here in the 1950’s.
The Madhesis and the Promise of Federalism
The Madhesis’ violent struggle for regional autonomy and political representation began when Nepal’s civil war ended. As the transition process began, Madhesis came to see federalism as the only way to ensure they would not be dominated by “hill, upper-caste elites.”
“We want federalism for emancipation from the internal colonization,” Rajendra Shrestha, co-chairman of the Federal Socialist Party (one of the Madhes-based political parties) said this week.
The Madhesis, many of whom speak languages other than Nepali and share cultural ties to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in northern India, have long been excluded from Nepali civil society, which is centered in Kathmandu. In the Interim Constitution of 2007, their demands for better representation and federalism were excluded, leading to protests and riots across the southern plains, known as the Terai. Over 40 people were killed in clashes with police. On April 12, 2007, the parliament amended the Interim Constitution to guarantee a “democratic, federal system.”
Over the next eight years as the Constitution was slowly hammered out, the Madhesis’ plight became publicized, but they continued to be excluded from Nepali civil society. Although Madhesis represent over 33 percent of the population, they only hold 12 percent of government positions, including the police and army.
As the Constitution neared ratification, the Madhesis stepped up their protests, demanding provincial boundaries based on ethnic groups, which would allow Madhesis to control several provinces and give them greater representation in the central government.
In the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes, the Constitutional Assembly fast-tracked the ratification, creating a federalist system with seven provinces that merged plains districts with hills districts.
“In six of the seven provinces the high-caste Hindus will either be a majority or a plurality,” said Dr. Mahendra Lawoti, who is a professor of political science at Western Michigan University. He is originally from Nepal and has been an advocate for ethnically-based federalism. “They will also get a majority at the center. It will create one ethnic group dominating the whole country at the center.”
As protests and riots once again broke out across the southern plains, protesters killed eight police and a child. The police responded by killing 35 protesters and committing human rights violations, as reported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The protests and blockade threatened to plunge the country back into widespread violence. Politicians in Kathmandu blamed India for orchestrating the blockade, and then-Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) pivoted to trade with China for help. Although India didn’t manufacture the blockade, they were complicit in allowing the Madhesis to block border crossings.
Eventually, the Madhesi blockade lost steam as India withdrew its support, the regional economy along the border suffered as much if not more than Kathmandu’s, and the Nepali parliament passed a Constitutional amendment that appointed seats in the lower house based on population over geography and gave the Madhesi districts greater representation. However, Madheshi demands for two federal provinces exclusively in the Terai were not met and they vowed to continue protests.
In the last year, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Maoist party has ousted Oli’s UML, and Dahal came to power promising to hold elections and settle the Madhesi issue. Many see this as the last opportunity for Dahal to complete the promises he made as the commander of the Maoists, when he went by the nom de guerre Prachanda. Although he became the first prime minister elected by the Constitutional Assembly in 2008, he was pressured to resign less than a year later after he tried to sack the army chief of staff.
In the last few months, he has moved to bring further Constitutional amendments before the Nepali parliament to bring the Madhesi parties on board. However, the UML has opposed these amendments, positioning itself as a force for nationalism, and preventing the two-thirds majority needed for an amendment.
In an address to the nation on Tuesday, Dahal blamed the UML for thwarting his promise of amending the Constitution before scheduling the elections. “Even discussions on the constitution amendment bill were not allowed for the three long months due to an undemocratic stance maintained by a certain section… As a matter of fact, the government was otherwise very much committed to going for polls only after amending the Constitution.”
Dahal is encouraging the Madhesi parties to once again press for amendments after the local elections, but they will lose a significant bargaining chip.
Countdown to the Election
Now, the election countdown has begun without Constitutional amendments. With only 71 days remaining, the Madhesi parties seem to be in a tight spot. They have vowed to boycott the elections and hold protests, but may lack the support of many across the southern plains — the blockade last year shut down Madhesi businesses and schools. There is likely to be widespread excitement for these elections as well, as people get to elect local leaders for the first time in two decades.
“The people bulldoze the environment. When there is certainty of holding the election, the wave of election mania will have an effect, even in the Terai,” said Dr. Gopal Krishna Siwakoti of the Nepal Election Observation Committee.
Experts say these elections could create a government that is more accountable to the people. Since locally elected bodies were dissolved in 2002 during the civil war, corruption and fraud has been rampant among local-level bureaucrats, according to the Asia Foundation. “Local government is the level at which a democratic system interacts with and delivers to citizens. It is unsurprising, therefore, that democratic progress and government performance have been dismal during the period that local government has been absent in Nepal,” Varughese said.
The new local governments will be responsible for administering schools, health posts, and basic infrastructure, which are woeful in most parts of rural Nepal.
While the excitement builds, the Nepal Election Commission, which was given under three months to prepare for this vote, is racing to prepare ballots and enforce rules. They also have to educated people on which jurisdictions they live in, as the boundary lines were redrawn as a consequence of the Constitution.
“We have a huge job now, so we have to work 24 hours,” said Surya Prasad Sharma, the spokesperson for the Election Commission.
Already, government officials have skirted the Election Code of Conduct by repositioning police officers and commissioning projects in their home district in the week before the Code of Conduct went into place.
“When it comes to the election campaigns, you see a lot of money around,” Siwakoti said. “Campaign financing is something that needs to be closely monitored at this time.”
The atmosphere in Nepal is charged these days – politicians are daily making inflammatory remarks, riling up the base, and skirting election rules. Democracy is alive and well in Nepal.
Stephen Groves is a freelance journalist based in Kathmandu, Nepal. He formerly reported on Virginia politics in Washington, D.C.