Nepal’s Election: A Peaceful Revolution?
Nepal’s Election: A Peaceful Revolution?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Report 155 / Asia

Nepal’s Election: A Peaceful Revolution?

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.

Executive Summary

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

AFP/Manish Paudel
Nepalese police and United Democratic Madhesi Front activists clash in Birgunj, south of Kathamndu, on 31 August 2015. AFP/Manish Paudel
Alert / Asia

Nepal Conflict Alert

Spiralling protests against a draft constitution have left 23 dead and hundreds injured in Nepal in two weeks. An over-militarised security reaction and inadequate political response from the centre threaten to fuel deep-seated ethnic, caste and regional rivalries less than a decade after the civil war’s end. The major parties should recognise the depth of discontent and the fundamental challenge this poses to the legitimacy of the proposed constitution. A hastily-passed document, weeks after mobilisation of security forces to counter citizens’ protests against it, is unlikely to be the social contract Nepal needs.

The constitution, nine years in the making, was envisioned as an instrument to address longstanding grievances of large parts of society, who argue that the old system marginalised them from state institutions and political authority, deprived them of a fair share of the benefits of development and discriminated against them. These groups include plains-based Madhesi, Tharu and smaller groups, Dalit caste groups in the hills and plains, hill ethnic Janajati (“indigenous nationality”) groups and women. Many have concluded that the 8 August draft does not adequately deliver on commitments to a federal system and inclusion.

The government and its opposition partners in the constitution deal say they are under pressure to end years of uncertainty by passing the draft quickly. They downplay the significance of the protests, arguing that not everyone in a democracy can be satisfied and that the constitution can be amended. The state response to the protests has been security-heavy and in some areas, the army has been mobilised to deal with civic unrest for the first time since the civil war.

Kathmandu circles underestimate the scale and intensity of disagreement and the complexity of the often-competing grievances and claims. There are high-voltage public debates over disadvantage and structural discrimination that feed social resentments and grievances. These deeply-felt issues will continue to find expression in agitation and opposition if the present moment is handled badly. A botched solution risks entrenching communal polarisation in society and radicalising groups that feel their concerns were not seriously considered.

Reconciling the expectations of all Nepalis was always going to be a challenge for the Constituent Assembly. The 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the then Maoist rebels and representatives of political parties, as well as the 2007 Interim Constitution, promised political reform and redress for past inequities. Numerous social groups based on caste, gender, ethnicity, and regional interests lobbied for their agendas. Often, movements turned violent to force the government to take them seriously. Since 2007, governments have signed over 40 agreements, often contradictory, with different groups.

The recent violence was mainly sparked by delineation of the six-, now seven-state federal structure proposed to replace 75 administrative districts. Tarai-based groups wanted to keep stretches of the southern Tarai plains together, including by changing the traditional north-south administrative divisions, which mixed plains, hills and mountains in administrative zones. In the hills, some Janajati groups want to keep areas traditionally considered homelands intact, though this is not a focus of protests. Other issues are also highly contentious though not explicitly part of the current demands: a proposed citizenship measure which makes it difficult for children with a single Nepali parent to gain citizenship with the same rights as those who receive citizenship by descent; and the proposed electoral system and standards for demarcating constituencies, which may not deliver better representation of the agitating population groups.

Madhesi communities, one of the country’s biggest population blocs and the largest group across the Tarai, and Tharu communities, many concentrated in the far-western Tarai, say the current system puts them at a demographic disadvantage politically. They anticipate gains under the new system but object to some parts of the plains being included in hill states. Traditionally hill-based communities, and the framers of the draft constitution, counter that migration continues from hills and mountains to the Tarai, forming mixed communities, and that hill community members have land or commercial ties to the disputed areas. Madhesi and Tharu groups believe the major parties want to renege on the letter and spirit of earlier commitments to political empowerment and reform.

Within the Constituent Assembly, which functions as the parliament, there is discontent. The governing coalition consists of the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic (MJF-D); its opposition partners in the constitutional deal are the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M). The MJF-D last week said it could no longer support the deal if Tharu concerns were not addressed. The NC and UML have forbidden their members from trying to amend the draft; 33 smaller parties have refused to be part of the process, and the oldest Madhesi party, Sadbhavana, resigned from the Constituent Assembly last month.

There are protests and agitation in much of the Tarai. Kailali district in the far west, parts of which Tharu groups and the hill-based Undivided Far West Movement want for their respective new states, had the worst violence last week. The major parties revised the federal model to add a seventh state in response to the latter’s demands. That added to the discontent of Tharu groups, considered among the most historically marginalised in Nepal, who said their grievances were ignored as they lacked close ties to Kathmandu power centres.

Since the protests began three weeks ago, at least fifteen people have been killed by police in various parts of the country. On 24 August, seven police and a child were killed in an apparent attack by protesters in Kailali’s Tikapur town. Kailali remains under a 24-hour curfew. Given restrictions on movement, it is difficult to verify reports of significant displacement of Tharu families fearing or following retaliatory violence. Birgunj city and areas in the central Tarai are tipping into serious violence, with nine people killed by police this week. The National Human Rights Commission has not officially investigated any of the deaths. The army has reportedly been mobilised at different times in Kailali, Dang, Parsa, Rautahat and Sarlahi districts. There are concerns about communally driven violence and about the state’s response. An indefinite banda (strike) across the Tarai is in its third week.

It is unlikely the discontent can be resolved by a deal between power-brokers in Kathmandu that does not address core issues. While some district-level political leaders and parties that represent Tharu and Madhesi groups in the Constituent Assembly have been involved in the protests or support them, the mobilisation and leadership comes largely from within local communities. Many of the protests do not involve huge numbers, but rely instead on better organisation and target the shutdown of specific infrastructure, such as government offices and stretches of the national East-West highway.

The government must act urgently to address tensions, reduce the risk of more violence and to restore confidence in the constitution-writing process. The enormous trust deficit between agitating groups and Kathmandu’s political leadership will worsen if the government and major parties persist with a heavily securitised response to fundamentally political protests, and if they and the media portray the protests as marginal or criminal. The government should also urgently form an independent commission to investigate the recent killings.

All protesting groups must denounce and guard against violence from within their ranks, and avoid threatening or extreme rhetoric. They must also offer realistic alternatives, not just reject Constituent Assembly proposals.

The major parties say they are open to amendments and willing to talk to any group that feels it has been excluded. The government in early August conducted a four-day exercise to obtain feedback on the draft, though there is a public perception it will ignore suggestions that do not fit the current draft’s form.

The timing, sequencing and design of talks will be challenging. It is essential the government does not insist on artificial deadlines or preconditions and is ready to discuss the status of past commitments. The agitating groups are wary of being forced into an accelerated timetable within the Constituent Assembly. The government anticipates speaking to each agitating front separately, but Tharu and Madhesi groups may seek a joint negotiation. Small adjustments to the proposed boundaries of states in the far west and east would significantly lower tensions but are strongly resisted by some leaders.

Tenor will matter as much as issues. If there are more deaths and if groups feel negotiations are not respectful or in good faith, this could jeopardise confidence in other contentious compromises on citizenship, the electoral process, the number and distribution of constituencies, the threshold for political parties, representation and inclusion.

The anger in the Tarai and among various social groups is real. If it is ignored or mishandled, the violence will grow. If the new constitution is truly to be one for all Nepalis rather than a starting gun for new forms of conflict, its framers must recognise that getting it done right is more important than getting it done fast.

Kathmandu/Brussels

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