Nepal is racing ahead for its provincial and Federal elections.It has just completed the local bodies elections despite several hiccups, and the results of these polls have offered good food for thought to political pundits.
The controversial third phase of local elections in Province 2 of Nepal was held on 18th September, by and large peacefully. This completes a major step towards full implementation of the peace process in the Himalayan state, albeit a bold step, the other two being holding of provincial and federal elections slated for later this year on 26th November and 7th December. The term of the present Legislature Parliament ends in another three months on the 21st of January 2018.
Local elections are an important tool in the functioning and consolidation of democratic set up in any country. Nepal has held elections to local bodies after nearly 20 years as the country remained deeply in the grip of Maoist violence, political turmoil and the anarchy created by the King himself. The King dismissed one government after another in quick succession in the late nineties and early twenties. Gyanendra himself was finally deposed on 10th June 2006 by Parliament; he was thrown out of Narayanhaity Palace, which is now turned into a museum.
It was a challenging task for Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to complete the election process as he took over the reins from Pushpa Kamal Dahal, popularly known as Prachanda under a deal in the midst of heightened agitation by Madhes based parties. Prachanda regime had held the first phase of local bodies’ elections despite a boycott by Madhes based parties.
Deuba handled the situation deftly with the help of Prachanda. Protracted negotiations ensured that the Rashtriya Janata Party (Nepal), and six party- alliance of Madhes centric parties were brought on board the third and last phase of local elections.
The results of first two rounds are a shot in the arm for the main opposition Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist, UML). It shows that though its government was ousted on 3rd Aug of 2016, its rating is ahead of ruling alliance of Nepali Congress and the Maoist Centre.
The UML has secured majority municipalities, 276, followed by 226 by Nepali Congress. The Maoist Centre of Pushpa Kamal Dahal could bag only 85 municipalities while the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party is completely marginalized with only 5 seats of Mayors/Chairpersons. The Rashtriya Janata Party (Nepal) has high stakes in Province 2 (covered in the third phase), being thickly populated Madhes region. The RJP (N) did not participate in the first two phases of local elections.
If this trend continues, the CPN (UML) is sure to bounce back, which may impact the provincial as well as federal elections.
All major players in Nepal politics – the Nepali Congress, CPN (UML), Maoist Centre, the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party and the Rashtriya Janata Party (Nepal) and other Madhes based parties and fringe groups have high stakes in the forthcoming battles of the ballot.
The Nepali Congress and RJP (N) and other Madhes centric parties are primarily harping on federalism and democracy. Nepali Congress has a long history of its fight against feudal regimes. Denial of share in governance to Madhesi people is forcing them to vehemently press for fulfillment of their democratic rights.
The main opposition CPN (UML) has its traditional vote bank in leftist ideology and new found stick of nationalism. It’s Chairman K.P. Sharma Oli, who is a former Prime Minister had tried to play with the sentiments of people during the blockade of border points with India (late 2015 and early 2016). He had even blamed India for the sufferings of the Nepali people and shortage of essential supplies due to the blockade during the Madhesi agitation. His tilt towards China is well known. This could be one of the main planks of the Communists during the forthcoming elections also.
The Maoist Centre too has its base in communist ideology but Chairman Dahal now appears to be more focused on equal opportunities to all sections under the Constitution and is receptive to the idea of keeping both big neighbours- India and China- in good humour. The Maoists, who emerged as the single largest party with 220 out of 575 elected seats in the first Constituent Assembly elections (2008) and formed the government, were relegated to third position in 2013 polls; they had lost much of their base to the CPN (UML) which was at third position in 2008 with only 103 elected representatives. Now the local elections show that the Communists can be a formidable rival to the Maoists in forthcoming Provincial and Federal elections.
The Madhes centric parties, which did not participate in the first two phases of local elections, have to show a formidable performance in the third phase, which is entirely the Madhes region, to be in the reckoning in the next electoral battle. If their strength wanes, they would lose their bargaining power for constitutional amendments for population and language based delineation of the Constituencies and citizenship rights.
The Madhes centric parties, though have decided to participate in the electoral process, have not dropped their agitation. One of their prominent leaders Rajendra Mahto has claimed that 48.2 percent of country’s population lives in 20 districts in the Madhes region and as such at least 82 Parliamentary seats (out of 165) should be allocated to their region
The biggest stake in the forthcoming elections will be that of the Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba himself. Branded once as Young Turk and considered in early nineties as politically immature, he has immensely gained in strength and takes bold decisions with deftness and precision. This is the fourth time that he has become the Premier. During two stints, (26th July 2001 to 4th October 2002 and 3rd June 2004 to1st February 2005) he faced the wrath of the King Gyanendra, who sacked him after branding him as inefficient. His first term as PM lasted from 12th September 1995 to 12th March 1997. It was during his third innings, Maoist violence was in full glow. The king placed Deuba and his entire cabinet under house arrest after clamping emergency in the country.
The Madhes centric parties, though have decided to participate in the electoral process, have not dropped their agitation. One of their prominent leaders Rajendra Mahto has claimed that 48.2 percent of country’s population lives in 20 districts in the Madhes region and as such at least 82 Parliamentary seats (out of 165) should be allocated to their region. RJP (N) leaders have contested the allocation of 75 seats to Madhes by the Delineation Commission, report of which is before the Deuba government.
Even while failing to generate consensus or two third majority support needed for approval of Constitution amendment, a bill was introduced and put to vote in Parliament on 21st August. It fell short of 48 votes for adoption. In the house with an effective strength of 592 members, only 347 voted in favour, and 39 abstained.
The main opposition CPN (UML), the Nepal Mazdoor Kisan Party, NMKP, and some fringe parties opposed the bill while the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party remained divided. This voting pattern gives the stick to Madhes centric parties to project the Communists, RPP and the NMKP of being anti-Madhes and anti-ethnic groups and minorities.
In this scenario, it would be a test of Deuba’s acumen to hold the elections in time for the new Parliament and Provincial legislatures, more so as the demand for fresh delineation of Provincial Assemblies remains unresolved. If he is able to complete the electoral process and thereby implement the peace process fully as resolved in the 16 point agreement by top leaders of major stake holders on 8th June 2015, well, in Deuba’s own words, “It would lead to new era of political stability and all-round economic development of Nepal.”
—By Rattan Saldi, formerly AIR Special Correspondent in Kathmandu