Nepal is ill-prepared for the next general election, the date of which is still uncertain and dependent on a new constitution being ratified, experts say.
The Constituent Assembly (CA) – elected more than two and a half years ago – is due to draft and ratify a new constitution by May 2011 in the hope that elections can be held sometime in 2012, but such deadlines have come and gone before – for example, in May 2010.
“The elections are key to complete the peace process, and the country’s political stability depends on it,” Shashi Upadhaya, a senior official from NGO General Election Observation Committee, told IRIN.
More than 13,000 people lost their lives during the 1996-2006 conflict between Maoist and government forces. Since then, Nepal has had a string of prime ministers – all of whom have failed to deliver political stability, threatening the country’s fragile peace.
“The likelihood of a new constitution being drafted by 28 May 2011 is slimming fast. Any extension of the CA’s tenure, ironically, stands to further the chance of a better-managed election,” said Sagar Prasai, deputy country representative of the Asia Foundation in Nepal.
“The extreme case can be that the CA is dissolved without a new constitution. I am not sure on what basis the elections would then take place. The parties would then need to forge a consensus on the electoral system to be applied,” said Leena Rekkila Tamang, head of the Nepal mission for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
New federal structure?
“The new constitution will decide on what kind of federal state structure will be made, which will also determine what kind of electoral system will be introduced,” said Krishna Man Pradhan, executive director of the Nepal Law Society, a private association of constitutional experts advising the CA.
Nepal’s 24 main (and 46 fringe) political parties have yet to reach any kind of agreement on the federal structure, he said.
On 18 February Jhalanath Khanal, Nepal’s new prime minister, urged political parties to put aside their differences and seek consensus.
“We are committed to completing the peace process and drafting a new constitution, but achieving those tasks will not be as easy as running a regular government,” he said in his first national address since taking office.
Though officially declared as a “federal democratic republic”, federal institutions are not yet in place, Pradhan added.
The CA is looking at the possibility of creating 14 provinces and 22 special autonomous regions based largely on ethnicity – to replace the current 14 zones and 75 districts grouped into five regions (Eastern, Western, Mid Western, Far Western, and Central).
Obstacles on the path to constitutional reform include ethnic-based political groups demanding that voter registration be suspended pending a decision on the federal structure.
Then there is the issue of voter registration for the over three million migrants working abroad, Pradhan said.
Meanwhile, senior officials in the Election Commission of Nepal (ECN) say preparations for the polls are well under way. “We have successfully trained our staff for the electoral process and key activities are already taking place,” said Rajendra Prasad Sharma, joint secretary of the ECN.
More than 1.2 million voters were registered in the country’s 58 municipalities in the first phase of voter registration between September and November 2010. A second phase, not yet finished, is focusing on village development committees in 43 districts, with the remaining 32 districts to follow, the ECN said.
“Voter registration is a huge task for any country and it’s very expensive… The commission is working very hard to make it a success,” said Luis Martinez-Betanzos, senior electoral adviser from the UN Development Programme.