What factors are keeping Nepal from holding free and fair elections?
The standoff between the various political blocks in Nepal is intensifying. There seems to be no end in sight to the political turmoil in a country that is still grappling with the effects of a decade-long civil war. Talks for the formation of an electoral government have stalled once again as the ruling Maoists demand that the Transitional Justice Mechanism bill be included in the electoral deal. The opposition, however, is accusing the Maoists of attempting to provide blanket amnesty to the guerilla fighters of its Peoples’ Liberation Army who committed innumerable war crimes. More than 16,000 lives were lost in the ‘People’s War,’ fought between the monarchy and the Royal Nepal Army, which stretched for over ten years between 1996 and 2006.
A Comprehensive Peace Accord was signed between the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) and the Seven Party Alliance in 2006, which formally ended the war. A few months later, King Gyanendra capitulated under the pressure and the Republic of Nepal was born. With the transition from a monarchy to a Republic underway, replacing the interim constitution became the need of the hour. Unfortunately, six years down the road, Nepal remains without a constitution.
The country’s institutions are not developed enough to cope with the various sophisticated demands of the state. This is mostly because of the 240-year long monarchical rule which delimited the role of various ethnic, religious and political groups in mainstream Nepali politics.
A weak coalition government of Unified Communist Party of Nepal – Maoists (UCPN-M) and the opposition are finding it hard to develop a consensus on the caretaker setup to oversee elections despite the fact that the Maoists seem ready to give up their policy of violence.
“Revolution in the 21st century can neither emulate the Soviet model nor the Chinese one. We must find our own way as we move ahead,” said Chairman CPN-M Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda at the party’s recent convention. In an effort to gain international legitimacy and give a new direction to politics at home, the governing Maoist party fast-tracked rehabilitation and integration of its armed wing. Following this, the party was taken off the list of terrorist organizations by the United States. The concept of ‘revolutionary’ land reform has been replaced by a ‘scientific’ system, and the party abandoned the earlier policy of confiscating private property and distributing it to the landless. The leadership has realized that it will need to work together to restore the economy and embrace progressive politics in order to move ahead.
However, according to CK Lal, a Kathmandu-based political commentator, the Maoists are “unfit to govern and unfit to stay in the opposition. But if elections were held today, they would win hands down. And not just that - they would significantly improve their tally.”
Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai of UCPN-M has agreed to step down in favor of Supreme Court Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi to lead an Interim Election Council to hold polls in June. Skeptics say it might not be prudent to do so, as it would blur the separation of powers between the executive and judiciary and adversely affect the upcoming elections. Unfortunately, with the election deadline looming ahead that seems to be the only viable option on the table.
The problem can be avoided by barring CJ Regmi from making any decisions related to the judiciary during the time that he heads the caretaker government, which would demarcate
the boundaries of each role and dissipate fears. The idea was provided by the sitting CJ himself.
Critics say this proposal by the UCPN-M would help remove the last remaining hurdle in the party’s quest for absolute power. “After dissolving the assembly, buying into media, coopting the police, appeasing the army and infiltrating the bureaucracy, only the Supreme Court was standing in the way,” states a Nepalese daily.
The elections are crucial for Nepal’s stalled progress as they would lead to developing the country’s constitution.
The reason why successive governments since 2008 have not been able to come to consensus about writing the new constitution is that the interim constitution is silent on what amounts to consensus. The lack of clear authority and jurisdiction has been used by the opposition to bash the Maoist-led coalition which has been blamed for the dissolution of the Constituent As- sembly, even when it was all the political parties which were in perpetual disagreement.
If a future electoral government is to ensure timely elections, it has to be given a clear mandate and delegated the requisite authority to do what needs to be done to hold free, fair, and timely polls. For that to happen, the parties must agree not to hold the elections hostage to their incessant bickering.
Chances are that disagreements over forms of governance, state restructuring, and the contents of the Truth and Reconciliation and Disappearance Commissions will erupt again in the new Constituent Assembly and again stall the new initiative. But people want the parties to resolve issues in the chambers and not play politics with them on the streets.
Some powers have agreed to appoint the CJ as the head of the electoral government, but the decision has not been owned by many others, with the fringe parties ( ethnic, religious minorities) are angered by their exclusion. The CJ refuses to become a rubber stamp for the all-party mechanism which seeks to run the country de facto. Then there are practical and logistical difficulties in holding elections by May or June.
At the end of the day, Nepal can only go forward if the entire leadership is ready to make a compromise which requires give and take by finding a mid-way solution. Since the opposition and government have failed to come up with a third solution, the only option is to allow Chief Justice Regmi to become the acting prime minister for the elections and allow state institutions to hold free and fair elections. That’s the only way to a new, secular Nepal. Rameez Ahmed is currently working as a newscaster at CNBC Pakistan. He has a deep interest in regional politics and writes frequently on various topics.