Nepal’s Election: A Peaceful Revolution?
Asia Report N°155
3 Jul 2008
This is one of two companion reports published simultaneously. The other, Nepal’s New Political Landscape , examines the major challenges remaining in a peace process that has made considerable progress but is still incomplete.
Nepal’s constituent assembly (CA) elections marked a major step forward in the peace process, paving the way for the declaration of a federal democratic republic and the start of the constitution-writing process. Although falling short of an outright majority, the Maoists won a decisive victory at the 10 April 2008 polls, securing a mandate for peace and change. However, the largely peaceful and well-managed vote opened a messy new round of political haggling and obstruction. The Maoists have been unable to secure agreement on a new coalition government. Other parties, still struggling to accept their defeat, have set new conditions for supporting a Maoist-led administration.
The elections delivered a clear and, to many, surprising result. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist, CPN(M)), emerged as the largest party by a wide margin, winning more than one-third of CA seats. The largest established parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist, UML), were not wiped out but have had difficulty coping with their relatively weak showing – their combined seats are less than those of the Maoists. The NC was particularly hard hit by the strong performance of new Madhesi parties, among which the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) has secured a dominant position. Royalist parties failed to win a single first-past-the-post (FPTP) seat, only saving a toehold in the new assembly through the parallel proportional representation (PR) contest.
Party campaigning built the atmosphere for a lively and passionate contest. Long-suffering and politically sophisticated voters proved a testing audience, keen to hear what candidates had to say for themselves but well prepared to exercise their own judgement. It was not the cleanest of campaigns. The established parties resorted to old tricks to steal a march on their opponents. The Maoists, and to a lesser extent the MJF, distinguished themselves primarily by outdoing their more experienced rivals at their own game. The CPN(M) did use intimidation and coercion but also exercised great restraint in the face of the possibly calculated killing of fifteen of its activists. At the same time it demonstrated formidable organisation and motivation – qualities which were deservedly reflected in its victory.
The vote itself and the complex parallel count went remarkably smoothly, with complete results (including repolling) ready within fifteen days. Still, final results, including the approved lists of parties’ selections to fill PR seats, were published only on 8 May, almost a month after the election. Five by-elections, for seats resigned by individuals who won FPTP contests from two constituencies, will probably be held only in September. One declared FPTP result has been suspended by court order following an appeal by the (narrow) loser. The 26 individuals nominated by the cabinet, who will complete the complement of 601 CA members, have yet to be decided thanks to the elusiveness of the required inter-party “consensus”.
Whatever the broad political breakdown, the CA is a remarkably inclusive body, far more representative of Nepal’s caste, ethnic, religious and regional diversity than any past parliament. One third of its members are women, catapulting the country into regional leadership on gender representation. Thanks largely to the PR component, no fewer than 25 parties have secured CA seats, reflecting a kaleidoscope of ideological and regional or community-specific agendas. The MJF proved that it was more than just a brand name for a vague sense of Madhesi grievance but a viable political machine able to mobilise votes and put identity politics on the map – probably for the foreseeable future.
The Maoist victory was not unsullied. The CPN(M) engaged in orchestrated strong-arm tactics, generally facing down other parties, which embraced similar means. Some resounding constituency results would have embarrassed the more modest political bosses who engineer realistic-looking margins of victory. Nevertheless, its strong showing was not manufactured. Voters were willing to give credit for its struggle and sacrifice, recognising that the Maoists were the architects of the federal republican agenda. They struck a chord with popular aspirations that the old parties had not even woken up to. In this, as in their more dubious techniques, they made full use of the fact that they had stayed in close touch with ordinary people and not lost their heads in Kathmandu politicking. Meanwhile, their convincing victories in many urban constituencies – the CPN(M) emerged the clear winner in the greater Kathmandu area –demonstrated that they did not profit solely by preying on vulnerable rural voters beyond the eyes of observers.
All in all, the elections were credible and a credit to those who organised, fought and voted in them. Although some disruption and intimidation took place, it was far less than predicted. Voters were offered a genuine political debate and real choices. In return, they took their responsibilities seriously and turned out in large numbers to have their say. For all the losers’ public petulance, very few collected evidence to file formal complaints. What remains is for the political elite to digest the message that Nepal’s citizens have at last been allowed to send them.
This report describes the campaign and vote, assesses the credibility of the election and analyses the results. A companion policy report published simultaneously surveys the new political landscape and examines the remaining transitional challenges. The CA has to deliver a functioning government, act as a legislature and also write a new constitution. Each of these would be a tough task in its own right; managing all simultaneously while seeing the peace process through to a stable conclusion will require further commitment and patience.
Kathmandu/Brussels, 3 July 2008