Liberal parties win Nepal's election as Maoist vote crumbles

Nepali voters rejected a party led by former Maoist insurgents and put two established parties in a position to form a coalition government, but reaching consensus on a new federal framework remains a challenge

Niranjan Shrestha/AP
Supporters of the Nepali Congress party hold their party flag as their candidates are displayed on a screen outside a vote counting center in Katmandu, Nepal, Nov. 21. The leader of Nepal’s Maoist party lost in last week’s national election.

Liberal democratic parties have won a resounding victory in Nepal’s Nov. 19 elections, relegating the once-dominant political wing of a Maoist insurgency to a distant third. But since no single party won a majority of seats in a Constituent Assembly tasked with adopting a new federal constitution, an immediate end to Nepal’s political turmoil seems unlikely.

Centrist Nepali Congress, the country’s oldest party, and the left-of-center Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) won 196 and 175 seats, according to an initial count. Combined, the two parties would have a majority in the 601-member assembly. Analysts say Congress President Sushil Koirala, a rare clean figure in Nepal’s politics, is the likeliest candidate for prime minister of a coalition government.

The new assembly is likely to convene in late-December, setting the stage for the formation of a new government to replace a caretaker administration led by a Supreme Court judge.  

The Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) won just 80 seats, a serious setback after their triumphant entry into democratic politics in 2008, two years after ending a 10-year armed rebellion. 

These results may marginally change in the final results. Under Nepal’s electoral system, citizens cast two votes – one for candidates vying for 240 assembly seats and another for parties that divide up 335 seats based on the percentage of votes they receive. An additional 26 legislators in the assembly will be nominated by the new government.

“People have again given a fractured mandate,” says political analyst C. K. Lal. “The top three parties are the same. Only their ranking is different.”

Shocked by the poor results, the Maoists have announced an assembly boycott, alleging that the vote was rigged and calling for an independent committee to investigate election irregularities.

“But this just seems to be a natural reaction of a party that is still struggling to digest defeat,” said Narayan Wagle, former editor-in-chief of Nagarik, a daily newspaper. “The main problem is that political parties will again have to cooperate to form a new government and also to draw up a new constitution. Our coalition culture is very poor.”

The assembly’s primary task is to finalize a new federal constitution left incomplete by its predecessor. Elected in 2008, it was dissolved in May last year after hitting an impasse over the basis - ethnic, geographic or economic – for federating a small, mountainous country where 123 different languages are spoken. One major reform that the previous assembly did achieve was the abolition of Nepal’s 240-year-old monarchy in 2008. But a post-monarchy transition has proven difficult due to demands for far-reaching ethnic autonomy within a federal republic.

“I see a deadlock right from day one of the assembly,” said Krishna Khanal, who teaches political science at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. “The Maoists have to be given a face-save and brought to the political process.” One way to do this is to set up a committee to examine alleged voting irregularities, however minor, he adds. 

Independent election observers, including former US President Jimmy Carter, have said that the elections were free and fair.

Maoist splinter hurts turnout

Analysts say a split in the Maoist camp set the stage for their defeat. Last year a splinter group of radicals broke away in protest at what it called a betrayal of pure Communism. The group boycotted the election, calling it a “quagmire of parliamentary politics.” 

Maoist radicals tried to sabotage their former comrades by urging supporters to vote for rival mainstream parties, said Mr. Khanal. The party also suffered from a loss of credibility after five years in power. “They engaged in doublespeak – telling the larger populace that they had permanently come to multi-party politics, while telling their supporters that the war for a communist state was ongoing but in a different form.”

Despite the possibilities of temporary deadlock, there is hope that things will eventually move ahead, as leaders of the top three parties have all pledged to deliver a new constitution within a year, according to Mr. Lal. “They failed the first time. This is their second chance….The (final) constitution might not be to the liking of many, but the ritual will be concluded,” he said.

One surprise in the election was the strong showing of a Hindu-monarchist party, Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, that finished fourth with 23 seats in the assembly, up from just four. The party wants to restore the crown and reverse a 2006 decision to turn Nepal from a Hindu state into a secular state. This demand seems to have struck a chord among sections of Nepal’s Hindu majority. The party has said that it will stay on the opposition benches in the new assembly.   

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