By Padmaja Murthy
By successfully conducting the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in 2008, Nepal embarked on a historic journey to conclude the peace process and frame a new inclusive constitution. However, three years down the line, although these goals have not been achieved, the country has seen four prime ministers.
Dr Baburam Bhattarai who is the vice-chairman of the UCPN (M) was elected on 28 August 2011 with the support of UDMF which is an alliance of five Madhesh-based parties. He is the fourth prime minister of Nepal since 2008. He got 340 votes and defeated the NC candidate Ram Chandra Poudel who had the support of CPN (UML) and got 235 votes. Thus, consensus which is so necessary to conclude the peace process has once again eluded Nepal. Bhattarai’s election has been greeted with both skepticism and optimism.
Political Scenario in Nepal
Despite the CA not achieving its stated goals, certain important developments-both positive and negative-have taken place in Nepali politics since 2008. The election of Dr Bhattarai as the prime minister has brought these out once again. First, no one party or individual can dictate the course of events. All political parties have understood that while they may adopt rigid postures, accommodation and conciliation are the key words. Second, all the political parties have vertical divisions within them. This was starkly visible in the past few months when precious time was lost managing the internal politics and dynamics among the UCPN (M), CPN (UML), NC and Madhesi political parties. However, the election of Dr Bhattarai has shown that these can be overcome, while not denying that the unity is fragile and needs caution. Third, the Madhesi parties have become an important permanent player in government formation as seen since 2008. Despite the many splits that have taken place among the Madhesi parties, they continue to be important. Whether they squander this critical space through frequent splits or consolidate it remains to be seen.
Fourth, most of the time, the election of a new prime minister (or even other difficult situations) is preceded by some agreement among the parties. However the clauses of the agreement are worded vaguely, prone to various interpretations by the signatories themselves which then becomes the cause for a different kind of instability. The election of Dr Bhattarai too happened after a four-point pact between the Madhesi-Maoist parties was concluded. This agreement was criticized by both the NC and CPN (UML). Fifth, the role of external powers in making and breaking governments is limited. They may influence but cannot dictate. The elections of different prime ministers since 2008 has brought out clearly that it is difficult to predict which combination or coalition will come to power. It was the same again in the election of Bhattarai as prime minister.
The four priorities as spelt out by the new prime minister are to complete the peace process as per past agreements, draft a forward looking constitution through the CA, address the issue of corruption, give priority to good governance and ensure transparency in administrative activities, give priority to social and economic transformation and address the issues of poverty and unemployment. On 25 August 2011, the UCPN (M) submitted proposals and commitments regarding the peace process, constitution and government. While these have come in for criticism they can be definitely discussed and debated. Some of the difficult issues to be resolved relate to integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants, the nature of state restructuring, the form of government and the election process.
The New Prime Minister and India
Bhattarai has always been looked upon as the moderate face of the UCPN (M) advocating the path of peace and constitutionalism. On many occasions India has been accused of trying to split the Maoist party and favour Bhattarai. This has both a positive and a negative implication. He cannot afford to appear too close to India but his election gives the assurance that the pro-China tilt which Prachanda appeared to have will not be repeated. Indeed, this combination with him at the helm and the UDMF as a major partner should be looked upon as a positive development. India should use all its influence with the NC and CPN (UML) so that they act as constructive forces for stability in Nepal and the region.
There is a glimmer of hope after a long time. The political environment despite all its shortcomings has some positive changes. Rigidity to a certain extent on some critical issues has been loosened. Bhattarai has three months following the third CA extension to prove the skeptics wrong. While the tasks might not be completed by then, some clear definite progress should be made. Otherwise instability will become a way of life in Nepal and the gains made in all these years by the effort of all political constituencies will be wasted.
Former Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi and former Visiting Research Fellow, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), Geneva
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