Who is going to relent?Current stalemate is leading to a polarisation of politics, with Madhesi parties at one extreme and UML at another
As the deadline for the next round of elections nears, we are facing the prospect of a historical failure.
The central conflict at the moment is whether to allow the new constitution to fail, or to make the work of the two Constituent Assemblies, elected after the sacrifice of thousands of people, redundant.
The current ruling alliance was forged with an understanding that the constitution must be amended in order to implement it and to hold elections. If the next round of elections is not held by January 2018, the new constitution will fail to direct the future political course. In such a scenario, political solutions will need to be found from outside the constitution.
The current political crisis has polarised politics even as it has raised questions about the modality of Nepal’s political transformation and the role of the Constituent Assembly (CA) in settling political issues.
The need for constitution amendment by revisiting key political issues demonstrates that the CA has failed as a democratic decision-making system. What was the purpose of a CA, elected twice, if its decisions are not binding and need to be changed at the whims of political leaders and parties who operate from outside the elected institutions and whose support base is not clear?
This is again symbolic of Nepal’s body politic, for much can be said about who or what is to be blamed.
Many continue to argue that it was not the failure of the CA as such, but a failure of our political culture. The argument runs that the CA was never really allowed to function in a democratic manner as it was held hostage by a handful of political leaders who wrested decision-making away from the public forum. The representatives were not allowed to discuss and settle issues in a democratic and transparent manner.
Those on the other side argue that the new constitution was approved by more than 90 percent of the representatives and to reopen constitutional questions now means to disrespect democracy and people’s franchise.
Whatever the validity of these arguments, they have become mere theoretical problems. The practical challenge is that the new constitution is likely to fail if the current stalemate persists.
How is the stalemate playing out? The amendment is seen necessary for elections, without which the current constitution will fail. The ruling coalition, therefore, has proposed amendments related to demarcation of provinces, more proportional representation in the national assembly, citizenship and language. However, there are other significant demands of the Madhes that have not been addressed. In addition, an alliance of Upendra Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai has come up with new demands.
The Morcha, so far, has not outlined a clear vision about the proposed demarcation of provinces, and any dialogue with the Madhesi people is not transparent.
The political stalemate is leading to a polarisation of politics, with the Madhes at one extreme and the UML at another. The RPP, the NC and the CPN (MC) have positioned themselves in the middle, as far as the constitutional issues are concerned. If the alliance of the NC, the RPP and the CPN (MC) becomes stronger, the three will have a greater say in diffusing the crisis and bringing other parties closer to the centre.
The two RPPs have united and bolstered the position of the ruling coalition, although the factor that brought these parties together remains obscure. Their unity seems unnatural because the parties have seen intense division internally regarding democratic procedures as well as the agenda of republicanism. However, the agenda of a Hindu nation and the centripetal force that brought these parties together, in the short term, have to be stronger than their differences. This will help the internal democratisation process and contribute to unlocking the current political stalemate.
The latest twist came when Yadav and Bhattarai formed an alliance, demanding that the proposed constitutional amendment resuscitate buried issues. Key among them are issues like a fully proportional Parliament, a directly elected executive president, proportional inclusion in all state organs and local bodies under the provinces’ jurisdiction. The alliance insists that without resolving these issues, the constitution will fail.
Federalism, nationalism, representation
That all parties agree on the need for a way out but have conflicting solutions has made the situation complicated. The UML wants the Madhes-based parties to take their grievances as an electoral agenda. But the Madhesh-based parties might be more interested in creating roadblocks for the political process than in taking part in the elections.
Towing the UML line and pushing for the next round of elections without the support of Madhes may have unintended consequences. The roadmap may be viable, but it would require increased security operations and suppression of political movements in the Madhes and elsewhere. It will further divide the nation along ethnic lines.
The UML’s new strategy in the Madhes is targeted at the Dalits and the women. This could, ultimately, have a positive impact as it will force the UML to be inclusive and put pressure on the Madhes-based parties. But whether the UML’s strategy will be successful or not depends on the extent to which the party can allow meaningful participation to the Madhesi Dalits and women, or whether the party will just portray itself as an agent of development.
The Madhesi people increasingly see the civil society and the media as having an ethnic bias. They complain that the mainstream media highlight the smallest incidents in the hills and ignore major incidents in the Madhes.
Further conflict is likely between the Madhes and the UML. Bimalendra Nidhi, the current deputy prime minister, himself sees the UML as trying to mislead the people and frame the proposed amendment in terms of nationalism. In an interview to a daily newspaper, Nidhi claimed that the UML is narrow-minded and sees the Madhesis as foreigners.
The UML’s position is not weak. It has a very strong appeal among the hill population, including the NC’s constituency, which might gradually move toward the UML. The UML and the NC leaders of the hill districts want the Tarai districts to be part of the same province. These issues are especially troublesome around hubs like Butwal-Bhairahawa, Surkhet-Nepalganj, Dhangadhi-Kanchanpur and Itahari-Biratnagar.
This has been complicated by a significant demographic shift in the plains, with the 2011 census no longer a reliable indicator. For example, electoral officials in Kailali estimate that the population of the district has increased to more than 1 million from the 775,000 in 2011,
largely due to migration from the hills. Similarly, the population of a small town like Letang in the Churia foothills of Morang has increased almost one-and-a-half times in the last five years.
The priority right now is to move the political process ahead, prevent a constitutional stalemate, and forge greater national unity. The current political crisis is a result of a combination of issue-based and
self-interest-based positions. It is difficult to separate issues from self-interests, for all self-interests are disguised as political issues, whether in terms of nationalism, sovereignty or political stability.
Whatever the course of action, political agreement or a constitutional amendment, it is going to require a paradigm shift in the stakeholders’ approach to federalism, nationalism, and political representation. For example, the current constitution only half-heartedly accepts the idea of federalism, and while there is restructuring of the state, control of the bureaucracy and political parties is becoming more centralised.
The question is: who is going to relent and how? It is a question that will affect Nepal’s long-term political future.