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Nepal gets another chance at electing constituent assembly

November 18, 2013 19:49 IST

The main contest is likely to be between the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, but neither of the parties have retained the support they had in 2008. Shubha Singh reports

Nepal’s election for its second Constituent Assembly on Tuesday is likely to result in another exercise in a long-drawn-out coalition-making.

The election is also likely to throw up several surprises because of strong dissensions within the main political parties and greater political awareness among different sections of society.

There is general disillusionment among the public over five years of political wrangling and changes of government without an agreement on a constitution. Most of the senior leaders are contesting from more than one constituency, though the reason given for choosing multiple constituencies is to demonstrate the extent of support in different regions of the country. But there is a realisation within the Nepali society for the need to get a stable government that can rebuild the economy.

The 10-year-long civil war ended in 2007 with a peace agreement and elections in 2008. Many observers believe that the first elections were not a real demonstration of each party’s support as they were held in an atmosphere of intimidation.

The political parties that had been driven out of the rural areas during the civil war had still not been allowed to venture to the villages to campaign by the Maoist cadres. Others contend that poll malpractices were ignored in the rush to have an elected Assembly. 

There remained two main issues of dispute that held up the consensus on a draft constitution; these were the structure and the form of government and ethnic identity based federalism in the country.

While the Nepali Congress favours a Westminster style parliamentary government, the Maoists, who have a charismatic leader in Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, want an executive presidency of the American type. The United Marxist-Leninists have called a combination of the two, with power shared between a president and prime minister, similar to the French system.

The second contentious issue was on the formation of provinces on ethnic identity of the dominant group of residents or on geographical lines. The Maoists have supported the formation of provinces based on ethnic identity, but the Nepali Congress and the UML have strongly opposed identity based provinces.

The Maoists took up the cause of the ethnic minorities; the Madhesi, janjatis and other groups. These minority groups that had been politically passive through the decades of elections have now become more assertive and have begun demanding their rights.

The leaders of most of the political parties are drawn from the elite communities which have dominated Nepali society. The Madhesi and the Tharus have been demanding separate provinces for themselves.

The Madhesi had traditionally supported the Nepali Congress, but had aligned with the Maoists when they took up the cause of the Madhes. The Madhesi of the Terai region along the border with India had launched an agitation that resulted in getting them some rights such as citizenship papers for the Madhesis. The Madhesi parties have, however, fragmented into a large number of factions, as leaders got discredited and divisive factors like caste and language were raised.  

The main contest is likely to be between the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, but neither of the parties have retained the support they had in 2008. The Maoists split with the dissident faction led by Mohan Baidya taking away about a third of the party cadres. The hardline faction charged its leaders of deviating from the party ideology and being influenced by the perks of power. It called for a boycott of the elections and joined the large number of small parties to call a ten-day bandh to demand postponement of elections.

Not finding much support among the public, the bandh was withdrawn after a couple of days. The dissident faction later clarified that it would not use violent means to disrupt the polls. But some violent incidents have taken place and Prachanda narrowly escaped a bomb thrown at his car during the election campaign.

The Nepali Congress has two groups led by Sushil Koirala and former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, but it hopes that the fact that it did not head the government in the past five years will save it from being blamed for the five-years of wasted time. The UML is also divided between its former prime ministers, Madav Kumar Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal and the unhappiness of its minority supporters.

The constituent assembly has 601 members; 240 are elected in a first-past-the-post election, 335 on proportional representation and 26 are nominated members. The Maoists cannot hope to repeat their 2008 success though Prachanda made a reconciliatory gesture to the dissident Maoists that they would be brought into the constituent assembly in the nominated category.    

Nepal goes to the polls on Tuesday amidst tight security. Unlike the 2008 polls, this time the administration has deployed the Nepal army in providing security for the conduct of the polls. The people of Nepal will have another chance at electing a constituent assembly that would draft a constitution and complete the peace process.  

Shubha Singh in New Delhi