By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On March 6, 2017, three protestors were killed in Police firing at Maleth, a Village Development Committee (VDC) in Saptari District, as Police tried to chase away the cadres of the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) protesting against a mass meeting of the main opposition Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) as part of its campaign for local level elections. Another 25 UDMF cadres and three Policemen were also injured in the clash. The death toll, later, rose to five, as two persons succumbed to their injuries, one on March 8, 2017, and another on March 10, 2017, in the course of their treatment at the BP Koirala Institute of Health Sciences.
Irked by the Saptari incident, UDMF – which consists of seven Madhes-based parties including the National Madhes Socialist Party (NMSP), Nepal Sadbhawana Party (NSP), Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum- Republican (MJF-R), Tarai Madhes Democratic Party (TMDP), Sadbhawana Party (SP),Tarai Madhes Sadbhawana Party (TMSP) and Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal (FSF-N) – announced a two-day general strike in the Tarai region at an emergency meeting held in Kathmandu, on March 6, 2017. UDMF leaders also threatened to withdraw their support to the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led Government. UDMF’s constituent parties have a total of 39 votes in Parliament, and have been demanding an amendment to the Constitution, changing the demarcation of Districts and constituencies before the holding of local level elections. The Constitution Amendment Bill primarily deals with the aspirations of ethnic Madhesis and Tharus on the delineation of provinces in the newly established federal system.
UDMF cadres restarted taking to the streets on February 21, 2017, protesting the announcement of the dates for local elections by taking out a torch rally in Rajbiraj, the District headquarters of Saptari. On February 20, 2017, a cabinet meeting held at Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s official residence in Kathmandu decided to hold the local level election across the country in a single phase on May 14, 2017, amid opposition from the agitating Madhes-based political parties. Significantly, Prime Minister Dahal had given an assurance on February 17, 2017, that he would work on election preparations and the Constitutional Amendment simultaneously. On February 19, 2017, Dahal had reiterated that he would declare an election date only after reaching an agreement with the agitating Madhes-based parties.
The conflict escalated when UDMF cadres clashed with the Police on February 26, 2017, as they staged a demonstration at Gaur, the Rautahat District headquarters, in a bid to thwart a function being organized by the CPN-UML. Further, on March 2, 2017, CPN-UML and UDMF cadres clashed at Rajbiraj in Saptari District while the former were distributing pamphlets. Again, on March 3, 2017, UDMF cadres tarred the face of CPN-UML District Committee member Pratap Narayan Chaudhary, who, among other CPN-UML cadres, was distributing pamphlets at Machha Hatiya in Saptari District.
Earlier, protesting against the adoption of the new Constitution on September 20, 2015, the Madhesis had blockaded border points with India from September 23, 2015 and only ended the blockade on February 5, 2016, after 135 days. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 32 persons, including 29 civilians and three Security Force (SF) personnel, were killed in blockade-related violence.
On November 29, 2016, in order to end the political logjam, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-Maoist Centre)-led Government registered a seven-point Constitution Amendment Bill at the Parliament Secretariat after the Madhesi parties had served an ultimatum, which ended on November 28, 2016, to bring an amendment proposal.
However, the Government’s move came amidst strong objections from the main opposition party, the CPN-UML. In particular, the party objected to the proposal to change boundaries of Province No. 4 and Province No. 5. Significantly, on December 1, 2016, CPN-UML started to obstruct Parliamentary proceedings, terming the Constitution Amendment Bill anti-national. Since then, nine opposition parties including CPN-UML have obstructed House business, demanding that local level elections be held before the Constitution Amendment process.
On February 20, 2017, in order to appease these opposition parties, the Government decided to hold the local level elections on May 14, 2017, after a gap of 20 years. The last local elections in Nepal had been held in May 1997. Remarkably, nearly three months after the registration of the Constitution Amendment Bill, with the opposition parties softening their stance and allowing deliberations on it, Parliament finally began general discussions on the Bill on February 23, 2017.
The opposition parties have, however, already declared that they will not allow the Bill to be endorsed by the House. On February 23, 2017, CPN-UML Chairperson K.P. Sharma Oli stated that his party would not let Parliament pass the Constitution Amendment Bill as it was ‘against the people’s will’, a position he reiterated on February 26, 2017. Meanwhile, on March 7, 2017, CPN-UML Secretary Pradeep Gyawali warned “We demand that the Government create political and administrative environment to hold the local polls. The elections can be and must be held, as the failure to conduct the polls will lead to the new Constitution’s failure.” Moreover, turning down the Government’s plea to halt its election campaign and demanding that Government ensure full security to party rallies, CPN-UML senior leader Jhalnath Khanal declared, on March 8, 2017, “We have demanded that the government ensure full security to peaceful party rallies. If the government fails to perform its duty and we have to defend ourselves, the situation might become complex.” Significantly, CPN-UML’s campaign, which was halted for three days following the Saptari incident, resumed from Hetauda on March 10, 2017.
Exerting pressure on the political parties to expedite preparations for elections, the Supreme Court ruled, on February 22, 2017, that it is constitutionally mandatory to hold all three tiers of elections – local, provincial and federal – within the stipulated date of January 21, 2018. Further, on March 3, 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the Government to furnish a written statement about the Government’s preparations for holding all three tiers of elections in line with the provisions of the new Constitution. Meanwhile, in view of the upcoming local elections, Election Commission (EC) spokesman Surya Prasad Sharma announced, on March 9, 2017, that the Election Commission would deploy the chief election officer, election officers and other support staff to the ground from April 16, 2017.
However, at a meeting held in Kathmandu on February 24, 2017, the Federal Alliance, a coalition of Madhes-based and other ethnic political parties and organizations, asserted that the Alliance could not accept local level polls. Further, on March 4, 2017, the Alliance reiterated that the local level elections announced for May 14 should be postponed as they had been announced in a hurry. On March 7, 2017, the Alliance gave a seven-day ultimatum to the Government to endorse the Constitution Amendment Bill with revisions and withdraw the decision to hold the polls. It also decided to withdraw support to the Government if the deadline was not met. Although the Government enjoys a majority in Parliament without the support of the Alliance, the latter has been extending its support all the same. 41 lawmakers belong to the constituent parties of the Federal Alliance.
On March 8, 2017, UDMF submitted a five-point memorandum to Prime Minister Dahal demanding the withdrawal of the local elections’ programme, Amendment of the Constitution, keeping the local level structure within the provincial jurisdiction and implementing the three-point agreement reached during the formation of the Government. The Front also demanded a high level commission be formed to probe the Saptari incident, and steps be initiated to punish the guilty, declare the deceased martyrs, compensate the bereaved families and provide free treatment to the injured. The Front warned that it would withdraw support to the incumbent Government if its demands were not addressed within seven days. Dahal had assured the UDMF leaders that he would hold discussion with the ruling parties and the opposition and decide accordingly.
However, after a meeting with ruling coalition members on March 1, 2017, Prime Minister Dahal disclosed, “The parties have made it clear that they would vote against the Constitution Amendment Bill.” Further, on March 9, 2017, emphasizing the inevitability of the elections, Dahal said, “The new Constitution has ensured rights of the legislative, the executive and the judiciary to the citizens at the grassroots. And to implement the Constitution, elections are the only way out.”
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is under tremendous pressure with the main opposition party CPN-UML warning of stringent protests if the local polls were not held within the stipulated date and the agitating Madhes-based parties threatening to withdraw support and intensify protests after the seven day ultimatum if the Government failed to meet their demands. As election preparations proceed, the impasse is likely to continue.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management