Nepal’s Disputed Election: Managing Pandora’s Box – Analysis
By Tiago Faia*
After a contentious and disputed election, Nepal’s centrist parties are struggling to reach an accord with the Maoists who helped bring down the country’s monarchy and were, until recently, the presumptive winners of the November poll.
“A new constitution cannot be drafted if the Maoists fail to secure majority in the upcoming election,” declared the animated Pushpa Kamal Dahal, leader of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), or UCPN(M), at an election campaign rally days ahead of the November 19, 2013 constitutional assembly election in Nepal. Dahal, whose nom de guerre is Prachanda (“The Fierce One”), delivered his speech with poise as the popular head of the incumbent party.
The UCPN(M) had completed a four-year term (2008-2012) as the leading party in the assembly, winning the previous election promising a radical agenda for change following its 10-year armed insurgency against Nepal’s centuries-old monarchic government and caste system.
While it helped to formally abolish the monarchy in 2008, the party had failed to achieve the promulgation of a new constitution by the end of its official mandate in 2012. Nevertheless, it continued to gather considerable support across the country in the subsequent year-long preparation for the November election, where it stood as the leading contender.
The poll appeared to be a simple formality to re-establish UCPN(M) at the helm of Nepali politics and to revive the party’s radical agenda for political and social change, but the electorate produced a dramatic about-face. The majority of votes went to the country’s traditional, centrist, and status-quo parties: the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or UML, which is far from progressive despite the name.
At once, the UCPN(M) and other smaller parties boycotted the results of the election, which caused tension and locked the electoral process in an impasse. Following weeks of intense negotiations, the majority of the contending parties reached an agreement on December 24, 2013 to work together and form the new assembly. Following the settlement of the electoral impasse in Nepal’s new political balance, can the Nepali Congress and UML manage the country’s profound political and social divisions and at last set the country on the path of inclusive development?
Iniquity and Insurgency
After over 200 years of despotic monarchic rule imposed through a rigid Hindu caste system, modern Nepal experienced its first democracy wave in 1959. However, it was not until the mid-1980s that a serious new thrust for political change materialized in the country in the form of the Movement to Restore Democracy. The movement prompted some political reform, yet the social and economic structures remained static. Poverty continued to be a ubiquitous part of the country’s landscape, and the firm caste system and ethnic division proliferated.
Against this backdrop, a new political force started to gain ground in the country during the 1980s — the Maoists. Under Prachanda’s charismatic leadership, the party offered the most radical agenda for change. It aimed to promote the creation of a republic, the establishment of a secular state, and the empowerment of marginalized castes and ethnic groups.
As successive Nepali Congress and UML governments collapsed every few months during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Maoists changed tactics and devised a more aggressive plan to reform the governance system of Nepal through revolution. In 1996, the party launched an armed insurgency that would last for the better part of the next 10 years. Its hallmarks included planned killings, torture, bombings, kidnapping, extortion, and intimidation against civilians, security forces, and public officials. The response it generated from the security forces was equally brutal, and the impact for the civilian population was immense. By the end, the conflict had claimed the lives of 16,000 Nepalese citizens.
A turning point in the conflict was an episode that took place on June 1, 2001, which is still shrouded in mystery. Then, the heir to the crown massacred nine relatives (including the king and queen) before he turned on himself. The Maoists saw the event as a timely opportunity to hold peace talks and foster the creation of a new government. However, the new king sought the support of the Nepali Congress instead, which headed parliament at the time, and opted to declare a state of emergency. At the time, following the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the U.S. government added Nepal’s Maoists to its list of international terrorist groups. The development empowered the Nepali Army to devise for the first time a counterinsurgency approach to the conflict, which benefited from the tacit military support of the United States, the United Kingdom, and India, which has grappled with a long-running Maoist insurgency of its own.
However, the Maoist revolt continued to thrive in the following years. As a result, in February 2005, the king decided again to seize executive power and disband parliament. The move prompted the United States, United Kingdom, and India to withdraw their military assistance to the country over concerns about overtly supporting an anti-democratic regime. The Nepali Army lost momentum and found itself locked in a military stalemate with the Maoists. Thereafter, the international community adopted a policy towards Nepal that focused mostly on the provision of aid and the need to restore democracy and civil society.
As the tides of war turned, the Maoists decided to change tactics once again, withdrawing almost entirely from its armed campaign and concentrating on political action. Peace talks with the government ensued and produced a UN-mediated peace accord in November 2006. The agreement provided for the temporary representation of the Maoists in government, preparations for the election of a new assembly that was to determine the duties of the king as head of state, and the draft of a new constitution. By 2007, the Maoists had joined the interim government as an officially registered political party, and in the following year won the largest share of seats in the April 2008 assembly election. As a result, the king stepped down, the Nepali Congress government resigned, and Prachanda became the prime minister.
Following long years as a fringe party, the Maoists won the 2008 election on a ticket for radical change. Through its astute military and political tactics, the party had exposed the weaknesses of the monarchy and previous governments of Nepal. It had rallied the marginalized castes and ethnic groups to break the country’s centuries-old religious and social system and implement systematic political, social, and economic reform. After the 2008 election, it set out to promulgate a new constitution built upon the pillars of republicanism, secularism, and ethnic federalism.
Nevertheless, the party fell short of this goal during the four-year tenure of the assembly. The lack of a full majority proved to be a significant challenge for the party, as it failed to win over a strong opposition bloc on its principles for radical change. One of the most contentious subjects was ethnic federalism. The Maoists claimed it was essential for thorough political, social, and economic reform. The party proposed the restructuring of the country into various provinces and the devolution of power to them in a manner that would enfranchise and give a stake in governance to traditionally marginalized castes and ethnic groups. The opposition favored the status quo, arguing that sustained ethnic federalism would compromise the unity of the nation and ultimately balkanize the state. Yet the concept gained serious traction in some regions of Nepal, most noticeably in the Terai plains. There, the majority Madheshi ethnic group produced strong political parties aiming to end its marginalized status in Nepal’s society, politics, and economics.
The failure to promulgate a new constitution in the established four-year timeframe led to the dissolution of the assembly in May 2012. A new election was to be held promptly after, but it materialized only on November 19, 2013 following several adjournments. At stake was the design of a new constitution, the resolution of the endless inter-party squabbling in the assembly, and the restructuring of the state according to federal lines as a vehicle for inclusive development.
In the lead-up to the election, the Maoists’ strategy rested largely on the charismatic profile of their key leaders, combined with the intrinsic belief that their progressive manifesto for radical change devised for the previous election would bring identical results in the new election. Their main concern was to guarantee full majority in the assembly as a vehicle to develop a new constitution in the space of one year. For that purpose, the party attempted to exploit its structural advantages as the incumbent party, disbursing more campaign funds than any other party and filing the candidacy of its key leaders (including Prachanda) in districts with large numbers of citizens from traditionally marginalized castes and ethnic groups, such as the Terai plains.
The main opposition parties ran a campaign based on the shortcomings of the Maoists while in power, in tandem with a manifesto focused on maintaining the political and social status quo. The parties made use of extensive campaign resources to reach an electorate disenchanted with the Maoist promise for change that never arrived. Their message was based on the integrity of the state, the unity of Nepal as a nation, geographical (as opposed to ethnic) federalism, and the experience they had accumulated in various governments over the past six decades. They accused the Maoists of wanting to balkanize the state for their own material interest and of lacking capacity to guarantee the unity of the country, with its more than 100 ethnic groups and multiple castes.
On the eve of the election, most opinion polls pointed to a return of the Maoists to power. The party leadership seemed equally confident of victory, anticipating an absolute majority in the last hours of official campaigning. Nevertheless, the people of Nepal, who turned out in considerable numbers, produced a dramatically different result in the polls. On November 28, 2013, the Electoral Commission of Nepal (ECN) confirmed preliminarily that of the 601 seats in the assembly, the Nepali Congress had won 196, the UML 175, and the Maoists 80. The remaining seats were split among various smaller parties.
The international election observation teams present in the country, such as the Carter Center, the U.S. embassy, the European Union, and the Asian Network for Elections, rubber-stamped the electoral process with a clean bill of health. Yet before the vote count was even completed, the Maoists decided to boycott the results, levying allegations of fraud and vote-rigging. Other smaller parties (mostly ethnic-based) followed suit, and tension rose across the country for some time as a number of inter-party clashes erupted.
When violence seemed a possible outcome of the electoral process, the Maoist leadership called for the peaceful conduct of its cadres and supporters in the party’s boycott of the results. Smaller boycotting parties emulated the approach and tranquility progressively returned to the country. However, the boycott continued, preventing a new government from forming. Before the Maoists could accept the results, the party demanded the formation of an independent committee to assess the fraud and rigging allegations; the creation of a permanent cross-party mechanism to complete the remaining tasks of the peace process and assist in the constitution-drafting process; and the holding of a fresh election within nine months of the ratification of the new constitution. The winning parties rejected the proposal outright. As a result, the electoral process became locked in an impasse for weeks.
It was only on Christmas Eve that the Maoists, the Nepali Congress, and the UML reached an agreement that appeared to pave the way for the formation a new assembly and government. The agreement was extended equally to other parties (including the Madheshi) and comprises four main points: the creation of a parliamentary panel to investigate allegations of electoral fraud (and not an independent body operating outside of the umbrella of the assembly, as requested by the Maoists); the development of a cross-party permanent mechanism for the constitution drafting process as well as for completing the requirements of the peace process (the leadership of the body is to be rotational and not under the control of the Maoists); the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Disappearance Commission to investigate atrocities committed during the 10-year insurgency; and the commitment of all parties to past pacts as the basis of the first draft of the new constitution, which should be produced within six months of the first assembly meeting, and then completed within a year.
The next months will be crucial for the maturing of political stability, peace, and development in Nepal. The central challenges will be the official formation of a new government, the drawing of an inclusive constitution, and the renewal of assistance and attraction of direct investment from the international community.
Solidifying the assembly and establishing a new government are essential to overcome the political impasse of the post-election period. The Maoists and other boycotting parties should submit their candidates’ lists to the ECN at once to facilitate the allocation of all 601 seats in the assembly and the official declaration of the election results. The Nepali Congress and the UML should welcome all parties to the assembly and engage positively with them, avoiding the “winner takes all” approach that characterized the workings of the previous assembly. Similarly, the parties should form the government cooperatively. The posts of prime minister, president, and certain other ministerial posts will be of chief appeal to both victorious parties. Nevertheless, they should refrain from intransigently consolidating their power in the new government and favor flexible political cooperation.
Correspondingly, they should draw the new constitution according to an approach of general consensus. The Maoists should follow suit while also playing a strong opposition role. The parties should avoid making exclusionary coalitions that could give them total authority in the drawing of the constitution. Following the country’s recent 10-year conflict and considering its diverse ethnic and caste fabric, it is indispensable to facilitate consensus and promulgate a constitution that meets the essential rights of all citizens. During the previous assembly, federalism emerged as the favored model of governance for the country, and it featured as a central topic on the manifesto of all parties that contested the recent election. Regardless of its ethnic or geographical variants, the adopted model of federalism should empower the traditionally marginalized ethnic groups and castes and foment systematic inclusion. Comprehensive social inclusion and representation are integral to the maturing of the peace and democratic processes in Nepal, and thereby key elements in the promotion of sustainable development.
To support further the country’s development, the new government should secure assistance from international donors and promote foreign direct investment. It should cooperate with international partners to reform and invigorate government institutions and the security forces. Traditional donors such as the United States, United Kingdom, India, and China should react resolutely and continue to foment stability and democracy in this geographically strategic country in the complex South Asian region. Additionally, the new government should encourage foreign direct investment to stimulate further development in Nepal, wherein agriculture, hydropower, and tourism feature as the strongest sectors.
Following the unexpected election results, the winning parties can set Nepal on the path of inclusive development through the creation of a stable government, the drawing of a new constitution based on inter-party consensus and systematic inclusion, and the renewal of assistance and attraction of direct investment from the international community.
*Tiago Faia is an academic researcher and consultant in international development cooperation, and author of the book “Exporting Paradise? EU Development Policy Towards Africa Since the End of the Cold War.” He served as an election observer with the Carter Center in Nepal.