Deuba in poll dilemma— whether to listen to his party or alliance partnersAt least two parties in his coalition want three tiers of elections in one go. Congress thinks otherwise.
If the election calendar is not disturbed—legally and constitutionally it should not be—the country must hold three tiers of election within 2022, starting with local polls.
The Election Commission has already proposed local poll dates for April 27, if they were to be held in a single phase, and April 27 and May 5, if they should be held in two phases. While the main opposition CPN-UML is pressing for holding local elections on the commission-proposed date(s), at least two parties in the ruling coalition have a different idea.
The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and the CPN (Unified Socialist) want the local polls delayed. The Maoist Centre has even been proposing all three levels of elections—local, provincial and federal—in one go, later this year.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, according to party members, is planning to call a meeting of the alliance leaders “soon” to discuss the matter.
The upcoming elections have raised a question—whether the ruling alliance will continue even during the polls.
Deuba, the Nepali Congress president, is currently leading a coalition government backed by the Maoist Centre, the CPN (Unified Socialist), Janata Samajbadi Party and the Rastriya Janamorcha. He replaced UML’s KP Sharma Oli on July 13 as per a Supreme Court order.
“As far as my understanding is concerned, the ruling alliance wants the House of Representatives elections first and local elections later,” said Ram Chandra Poudel, a senior Congress leader. “Local election results largely impact the parliamentary elections.”
Poudel also heads the 11-member high-level political coordination committee formed “to assist the government”. Poudel said he is also planning to hold a meeting of the committee in order to discuss some of the issues including local elections, but it has failed to take place due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“There is a division in the ruling alliance on holding local elections. So I was planning to call a meeting of the coordination committee,” said Poudel. “But it could not happen after some top leaders of the ruling alliance were down with Covid.”
Leaders from the Maoist Centre and the CPN (Unified Socialist) have been saying that the current alliance will continue even during the elections. Many say their statements stem from their wishful thinking rather than any understanding among the coalition partners.
The Maoist Centre was reborn less than a year ago after its merger with the UML was invalidated by the Supreme Court on March 7 last year. The two communist forces had fought the parliamentary elections and two phases of local elections in 2017 under an alliance. They merged to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) in May 2018.
The CPN (Unified Sociliast) was formed on August 25 after a group led by Madhav Kumar Nepal decided to split from the UML.
Observers say since the two communist forces do not have a strong vote base, they do not want to go to elections soon. That’s why they are pushing for delaying even the local elections.
The Maoist Centre and the CPN (Unified Socialist), many say, believe they see a chance of winning some seats if they can fight the election under the current alliance with the Nepali Congress.
As of now, the five-party alliance has decided to fight the National Assembly elections, slated for January 26, jointly. As many as 19 new members will be elected to replace those who complete their four-year term on March 4.
Insiders in the Congress say the picture could be clearer after the upper house polls.
After his comeback as the party president from the 14th general convention, Deuba appears to be emboldened to take the party to polls on its own. The Nepali Congress under Deuba faced an unprecedented defeat in the 2017 elections against the communist forces. So Deuba might continue the alliance only until elections, not during the elections.
But as far as different levels of elections are concerned, according to at least two Congress leaders, there are two lines of thought in the party.
“Within our party, a majority of the leaders think we may not fare well if local elections are held soon [April-May] due to the recent general convention which saw factionalism,” a senior Congress leader told the Post. “And local election results will have a huge impact on general elections.”
And since two coalition partners are pushing for delaying the local elections, according to the leader, the party president and prime minister are also mulling over the suggestion.
“The Maoist Centre and CPN (Unified Socialist) think they can strengthen their party organisations if they get some months’ time,” the leader told the Post.
Dev Gurung and Jagannath Khatiwada, leaders of the Maoist Centre and the CPN (Unified Socialist), said local level elections in April-May are unlikely.
“And what if the virus cases rise in coming months? Can we prepare for the polls?” said Gurung. “There are also some ambiguities in the constitution and laws regarding local polls.”
According to Gurung, while constitutional provisions state that elections to the local bodies can be held six months after the elected representatives complete their tenure, the election-related law says otherwise.
According to Clause 55 of the Local Level Election Act-2017, the terms of local representatives start from the seventh day of the election date. As the first-phase local elections were held on May 14, 2017, the terms of the local representatives are deemed to have begun on May 20. This means new representatives must be elected by then so as to avoid a vacuum, regardless of the fact that second and third phases were held at later dates.
Article 225 of the Constitution of Nepal says the terms of local governments shall be of five years from the date of election. It also says the next local governments shall be elected no later than six months after the expiration of the terms of the existing ones. However, a new Act is necessary to implement the provision which is yet to be drafted by the government.
“We need to clear the ambiguities first,” said Gurung.
Khatiwada, spokesperson for the CPN (Unified Socialist), said that the ruling alliance will discuss the prospects of holding local elections once National Assembly elections are over.
Janata Samajbadi Party chair Upendra Yadav, however, said the three levels of election must be held on time and that the government must declare local election dates without any delay.
“Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, elections are taking place in several Indian states. So why can’t we hold elections here?” he said. “In my view, the election date should be declared within a day or two.”
Given differing views of his coalition partners, Deuba appears to be treading carefully.
Both Dahal and Madhav Nepal are not Congress’ natural allies.
The Maoist Centre had fought the first phase of local elections under an alliance with the Congress in May 2017 when Dahal was prime minister with the Congress backing. After Dahal handed over the government to Deuba as per an understanding, he sided with the UML to forge an electoral alliance for local elections, which continued until the general elections.
Now, while Deuba wants his Congress to fight elections alone, he also does not seem to be in a mood to alienate the Maoist Centre, as he fears it could again forge an alliance with the UML.
As far as Madhav Nepal is concerned, his party is new and there is no clarity in the Congress on the kind of alliance that can be formed with the Unified Socialist.
Congress General Secretary Gagan Thapa said that the prime minister and party president is in favour of holding local elections on the date(s) proposed by the polls body.
“I have spoken with the prime minister. He is for holding the local elections on time,” Thapa told the Post. “We are very much ready to face the polls. Some circumstantial issues like the spread of Covid-19 may affect the polls, but the Nepali Congress is in favour of holding elections on time.”