As the Constituent Assembly elections begin in Nepal, Alys Francis speaks to David Pottie of the Carter Centre Democracy Program, to find out whether the polls will result in political stability, which has been eluding the nation for the last decade.
On 19 November, Nepal heads to the polls to vote for a new Constituent Assembly (CA).
It’s déjà vu for the small Himalayan country, wedged between China and India, which saw the first CA election in the wake of the abolishment of the Monarchy in 2008 — those elected leaders spent the next four years squabbling and failed to come up with a constitution.
But while the 2008 polls took place amid a mood of excitement for the future of Nepal, CA Take II is a sequel beset with weariness and disillusionment.
Chatting to taxi drivers, hotel workers and shop keepers in the capital Kathmandu, it’s hard to find someone who holds hope that this election will result in a constitution, let alone end the political instability Nepal has witnessed; a10-year civil war, multiple democratic uprisings, Monarchist takeovers and a royal massacre, to name but a few.
Add to the gloomy mood a hardline Maoist-led alliance of parties who are boycotting the election and have called a nationwide strike to disrupt voting, with increasing violent attacks across the country.
The US-based NGO The Carter Centre has been working in Nepal since 2004 overseeing the rocky road to democracy.
The Indian Sun spoke to David Pottie, Associate Director Carter Centre Democracy Program, to find out why Nepal is having such a hard time transitioning to multi-party democratic politics, and whether there is any hope for stability in the near future.
Why is there so much turmoil within Nepal’s political parties?
There is an immense amount of factionalism within the parties. The Madhesi parties have split and split and split again. The Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML both have serious internal factions, though they have not endured a significant split as the Maoists did. This stops the process of governance.
It would be nice if these elections were to provide a definitive alignment of political party representation but it’s very hard to predict.
How optimistic are you that this election will end the political stalemate?
I have optimism of the spirit and cautious pessimism of the intellect. This is the best solution to the political stalemate that existed. Other forms of bargaining that were attempted, in terms of elite bargaining and changing the PM and reformulating new political party alignments, all of that failed. And so the election provides an opportunity for a reset.
If though, all the reset generates is more or less a restoration of the previous levels of support or balance of forces, it’s hard to see what will have changed.
Was there an effort to get the boycotting parties, led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M), to join the election?
Great lengths were gone to try to bring CPN-M Chairman Mohan Baidhya back into the process, so they could become registered as a political party and ensure that they were registered as voters over the course of September.
Ultimately that did not happen. It’s difficult to say to what extent that ever was good faith bargaining on the part of Baidhya. We have met with him many times and he says two things at the same time.
The Baidhya-led Maoists [want to stop the election but then] say ‘Oh and we want to participate too but we want the following conditions to be met’.
Ultimately it’s quite open that it’s merely a transitional tactic to participate when the true goal is to overthrow the system. So that makes it very difficult, to then bargain with someone who says, ‘I’ll participate in your club for now but when I get a chance I’ll burn the house down’.
How much of a threat is the alliance?
They are trying to manifest some of their strength now, and have done so in some other largely isolated incidents over the last two months – there were some attacks on individuals and a women had acid thrown on her.
There have been some quite violent individual attacks, roadblocks, shake downs for money for free passage of vehicles. Ultimately these are tactics of intimidation to get local politicians to feel inhibited from openly campaigning.
But the CPN-M does not have equal strength in every part of the country so they are not able to enforce a national boycott.
How likely is it that the strike will disrupt the vote?
It is certainly inconvenient but is it a likely destructive force? In total, is it enough to disrupt the conduct of the elections? I don’t think so. It may produce isolated pockets where election material doesn’t get to its final delivery point.
I think it will ultimately fail in its political aim, at least in terms of trying to convert anyone who isn’t already a believer in the cause of the boycott.
The political objectives really amount to, well this is a way to get attention. And I think that message has been heard and the vast majority of Nepalese aren’t convinced by it.
I don’t think it will be on a sufficient scale to derail, if the election is well conducted on its own terms, I don’t think that this boycott will raise a question mark about its legitimacy.
What has the delay in forming a constitution done to Nepal?
This very pregnant period of an effort to get the politics right has meant that questions of governance, state transformation, infrastructure development and job creation have all languished.
I think that at one level the Nepalese people have been extremely patient with their political leaders… and that’s also a danger: that they get frustrated and opt out entirely of the whole political process to reform and create a new Nepal or otherwise somehow reject that process.
Do you think this election will bring stability to Nepal?
I don’t think that this CA election, that the election will solve those problems. We’re very unlikely to see an arrangement of political parties who share a vision of federalism or share a vision of the future form of state to enjoy a clear majority, either as a single party or as a group of parties.
I think that there are still significant differences among the three main parties on federalism, the nature of federalism, the roles and responsibilities of sub-national units of the state.
For a country where there is not a great deal of foreign investment in terms of much needed improvements for infrastructure, or job creation. For a country where many millions of Nepalese are going abroad, they are in a way voting with their feet.