Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Report 149 / Asia 3 minutes

Nepal’s Election and Beyond

Nepal’s peace process faces a crucial test this month. Elections for a Constituent Assembly (CA) are likely to go ahead on 10 April 2008 as scheduled but political unrest and violence could mar – or even derail – preparations, and the aftermath could bring turbulence.

Executive Summary

Nepal’s peace process faces a crucial test this month. Elections for a Constituent Assembly (CA) are likely to go ahead on 10 April 2008 as scheduled but political unrest and violence could mar – or even derail – preparations, and the aftermath could bring turbulence. Elections in a delicate post-conflict situation are never straightforward and Nepal has many possible flashpoints, not least that the two armies that fought the war remain intact, politically uncompromising and combat-ready. Once results are in, all political players must be prepared for a difficult period in which they will need to compromise to make the CA an effective body, extend the number of parties with a role in government and urgently tackle crucial issues left aside during the campaign, including security sector reform. The international community has an important election observation function and should listen to Nepal’s political and civil society groups in assessing the credibility of the process.

Successful elections for a CA charged with writing a new constitution and serving as an interim legislature would be a major step forward. It would be a psychological and concrete achievement for the political leadership after two failed attempts that would vindicate the sometimes controversial concessions made to recalcitrant groups, which made the peace process possible. It would also be welcomed by the international community. India wants a successful conclusion to the roadmap it was closely involved in designing, while credible elections would open the way to a significant scaling back of the UN role. Although underlying issues remain, holding the polls would signal the short-term success of the recent deals with protesting groups.

There are many positive signs. All parties moved quickly into campaign mode, nominating candidates and launching programs to attract voters. A vibrant media reporting news and offering critical scrutiny is narrowing the deficit in public awareness of the electoral system and party positions. Given the momentum, it would be hard for any major party to back out of the elections, although some, including the Maoists, are still wary of the process. 

Nevertheless, major challenges remain. The campaign has been dogged by violence and intimidation. While the Maoists appear to have been responsible for most assaults on rival candidates, they have had eight of their party workers killed – a fact which the mainstream media has chosen to downplay. Public security has been dismal throughout the ceasefire, and armed groups in the lowlands have carried out killings, bombings and abductions and threatened further violence. The considerable technical challenges of holding an election have been exacerbated by a complex, nearly opaque parallel electoral system that involves three separate means of selecting members of the CA. The widely respected Election Commission, charged with managing all aspects of the exercise, has no experience of logistics. In previous elections, those, along with back-up security, were managed by the army, which the peace agreement has now largely confined to barracks.

The post-poll period will likely be difficult and dangerous. Under the best of circumstances, it will probably take three weeks to determine final results. Significant repolling is expected to be required in areas where there was violence or disruption on election day – adding weeks more to the schedule. There will certainly be appeals from losing parties, and public frustration at the delay in learning results may add to a tense atmosphere. Parties will trade allegations of fraud and violence. The behaviour of powerful losers will shape the immediate aftermath. Some, in particular the Maoists, may even be tempted to reject the entire election: the best possible results for them will not reflect their actual power on the ground (exercised through continuing parallel structures). Royalists cannot hope to gain enough seats to block the move towards a republic.

If the major political forces accept the results and move forward without severe confrontation and acrimony, the transition will be manageable. However, each step will present obstacles that demand maturity and cooperation from party leaders. The formation of a new unity government – which will need to include members beyond the current seven-party coalition – will prompt much haggling. The convening of the CA, whose first sitting must take place within three weeks of final poll results and which is set to discard the monarchy, will be even more problematic. Transitional arrangements are only vaguely covered by the Interim Constitution; how they work out in practice will depend on political compromise. Yet, the CA will have to deal with tough issues, including the drafting of the constitution and addressing security sector reform, federalism, the role of the monarchy, secularism and inclusiveness.

While attention has focused on the elections, there has been no progress on the fundamentals of the peace process. Many critical agreements have not been implemented, inter-party consensus and mutual trust are fragile, and the military ceasefire, which has held since April 2006, has yet to be transformed into structures for a sustainable peace. Public aspirations for peace and socio-economic reform remain high but are matched by scepticism towards political leaders. This is the best chance for politicians to redeem themselves.

Kathmandu/Brussels, 2 April 2008

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