In key election, Nepal's tumult drives new pragmatism

Nepalese are disillusioned by political infighting that has delivered little stability in the young republic. But some say more realistic expectations for Tuesday's general election – the first since the monarchy ended in 2008 – could bolster progress.

Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters
An official checks the ballot boxes before they are distributed to the polling stations at District Development Committee Office in Kathmandu November 17. Nepal is due to vote on November 19 for a constituent assembly meant to draw up a new constitution.

Nepalese head to the polls Tuesday in what will be the country’s first general election since the abolition of a 240-year-old monarchy. But hanging over the vote is deep disillusionment with a tumultuous political process that most here say has failed to deliver on the promise it showed five years ago.

Twelve million voters are eligible to vote for a 601-member body that will be tasked with adopting a new constitution – one of the twin pillars of a peace process that began in 2006 when Maoist rebels ended a 10-year insurgency that killed more than 17,000 people and was aimed at making Nepal a republic.

But while the end of the insurgency was welcomed, its conclusion did little to end political turmoil in this once-sleepy nation where Buddha was born. 

Nepal's previous assembly was dissolved in May last year following a months-long standoff over state restructuring – principally over whether to federate the country, which has 125 ethnicities and 123 languages, along ethnic, geographic, or economic lines. Its inability to deliver a permanent charter despite receiving four extensions is the main reason the electorate doesn’t believe a new assembly, where old players are again expected to have a major say, will do any better.

Instead, many fear a continued stalemate will undermine steps toward democracy and prolong a transition that has dried up investment and jobs. Lack of opportunities at home has forced millions of youths to take up risky jobs in Malaysia, South Korea, and Gulf nations from where two dead bodies are shipped back to Kathmandu on an average every day, according to government figures.  

“I think the vote will result in an assembly where the presence of extreme left and extreme right forces will be considerable,” said Narayan Wagle, former editor-in-chief of the daily Nagarik. “The middle ground of centrist and left-of-center forces is unlikely to command a two-thirds presence. Therefore, a new constitution is impossible unless there is a miracle or a great compromise.”

In the previous assembly, the extreme left – the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) – was the largest party, with seats equal to the combined strength of centrist Nepali Congress Party and left-of-center Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist).

The only pro-monarchist party in the last assembly had just four seats. But there is widespread speculation the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) will benefit this time from popular disillusionment with major political parties that demonstrated a dismal inability to guide the country – one of the poorest in the world – to stability and economic progress in a post-monarchy period. Also, RPP-N’s demand that a 2006 decision to turn Nepal from a Hindu state to a secular state be repealed could appeal to sections of Nepal’s 81.3 percent Hindu population.

But few seem concerned about what kind of composition the new assembly will have, Mr. Wagle says. “Who cares about a new constitution anymore? The layman has understood that a constitution is not a big deal as it was made out to be. A nation’s life moves on without a national document.”

A silver lining?

Analysts point out that the past five years have made many wary of putting much faith in populist promises and unrealistic demands – something that could have a positive outcome.

“The only thing people expect this election to do is fill a political vacuum that emerged after the dissolution of the previous assembly last year,” says analyst Bishnu Sapkota. “I think the electorate has matured now. There are no longer unrealistic expectations of a social and economic miracle. I think this transformation had to happen at some point in time.”

Indeed, many politicians did not make tall promises during their election campaigns.

Ishwor Pokharel, general secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), took a personal tone to sway voters. “I live among you. I am your neighbor. I am accessible. I am the one who will be there to attend weddings at your houses as well as funerals,” he told a gathering in Dhumbarahi locality in Kathmandu this month.

Mr. Wagle says realistic expectations could actually stabilize the country.

“A nation’s transformation is a lengthy and painful process as opposed to what the politicians promised during their loud election campaigns prior to the 2008 elections," he says. "There is a widespread realization now that a constitution is not a magic wand, and therefore investing all national energy and time on the document is useless. Instead, energy needs to be invested on things that appear small but are important, like transparency, a culture of dialogue and tolerance, and small but consistent steps toward development.” 

The more balanced national mood could also make it easier for political parties to work toward compromise.

“All the parties know by now each other’s bottom lines. So negotiations could be easier,” Sapkota says.

Nilambar Acharya, who headed the constitutional committee in the previous assembly, argues that another thing that could work for the parties now is that there is no Maoist army to manage any more.

“The last assembly spent most of its time on settling the future of former Maoist combatants. Real discussions on a constitution were held only for around 40 days in the four years of the assembly’s life,” Mr. Acharya said on a recent television interview.

Nepal concluded the handling of 19,602 Maoist former combatants – a tricky part of the peace process – in August. Most were sent home with cash handouts, while more than 1,400 were taken in by the state Army.

Unlike Mr. Wagle, Mr. Acharya predicts the new assembly will be skewed in favor of democratic forces, unlike the previous one, where the strength of democratic parties combined was the same as that of the largest party – the Maoists.

One fact that could help result in an assembly dominated by centrist and left-of-center forces is the split in the Maoist party. Last June, radicals in the party broke away and formed the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, which is boycotting Tuesday’s vote and has vowed to disrupt it. 

The party has called a nine-day nationwide transportation strike that lasts till the day of the vote, and its supporters have set ablaze passenger vehicles for defying the strike. More than two dozen people have been injured in the group's gasoline bomb attacks on moving passenger vehicles. On Sunday, a truck driver who was injured during a gasoline bomb attack in southern Nepal Thursday died in Kathmandu, the first fatality from such attack. 

The choice

On Tuesday, Nepalese will cast two votes – one for the candidate of their choice under the "first past the post" system, and another for the party of their choice under a proportional system. Altogether, 240 legislators will be elected from the first past the post votes, while 335 will be elected from the proportional system, under which seats will be divided among political parties based on the percentage of votes they garner. The remaining 26 members will be nominated by a new government.

There are 124 political parties contesting in the election.

“After several frustrating years, the ball is in the people’s court again,” says Gunaraj Luitel, editor of the Annapurna Post daily. “The common man can now make a difference by electing the best candidates – candidates who are accommodative and can work toward a compromise.” 

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