Stability was a common refrain. Local polls hint at more unstable politicsIt’s tough for any party to gain majority in general elections. Experts suggest measures to ensure stable governments.
Local election results have made one thing clear: the general elections later this year will most likely give a hung parliament, largely because of the electoral system Nepal has adopted. If local polls are anything to go by, the CPN (Maoist Centre), which was on the verge of losing its relevance, has managed to bounce back to retain its “kingmaker” position, thanks to Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba who weathered opposition from his own party to fight elections in an alliance with the coalition partners.
Not only CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli but many others also were expecting Nepal to transition towards bipolar politics after the local elections. But that does not seem to be the case. The country will go to the polls later this year to elect a new House of Representatives. As per the electoral system, 165 members come through the first-past-the-post system while 110 members are elected through proportional representation.
Experts say unless there is a miraculous performance by any party, the likelihood of any party winning majority seats—138—to form the government on its own is low.
A hung parliament may not be necessarily bad, but it raises chances of frequent changes in government, something Nepali politicians have been wanting to get rid of.
“There is a need to review the existing electoral system as it can neither give a stable government nor control corruption,” said Khimlal Devkota, a central committee member of the Maoist Centre and senior advocate. “I have been lobbying for a change in the electoral system ever since the new constitution was being drafted but the political parties did not pay heed to my suggestions.”
Since the restoration of democracy in 1990, Nepal has been striving to achieve a stable government that can govern for the full term. Until 2018, Nepal saw dozens of governments being formed and toppled in cycles, largely because none of the parties could achieve a clear majority.
The general perception is that political instability has been the bane of Nepal, stymying progress. When Nepali politicians were drawing up the constitution, one of the goals was also ushering in political stability.
But the election of members in the 275-strong House in 60:40 ratio (165+110) is likely to make it impossible to have a stable government.
In 2018, there were hopes that the new government would last for the full term as the UML and the Maoist Centre had joined hands and swept the 2017 elections. But the expectations were short-lived, as the government fell after a little over three years.
Birendra Prasad Mishra, a former election commissioner, says Nepal is bound to have coalition governments of two or more parties, so rather than griping about the system, politicians should develop a culture of working in the larger interest of the people and the country.
“The system cannot be called faulty,” Mishra told the Post. “There is a need to develop a coalition culture.”
Nepal’s governments have fallen in a series in the last three decades with every administration’s lifespan averaging nine months. Such frequent changes in government not only affect development works but also discourage foreign investors from coming into Nepal to do business.
Almost all the governments in the past have fallen over petty partisan interests or some politicians’ whims and lust for power.
In the recent past, the Maoist Centre has been the cause of the fall of governments by virtue of its position as the third largest party.
The Maoist Centre has managed to retain its third position because of its alliance with the Congress and other ruling parties, but it’s not clear yet whether the alliance will continue during the general elections also. No matter what, its bargaining power has increased and it will get ample chance to side either with the Congress or the UML whichever way suits it, or its chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal for that matter.
Over the last one and a half decades since the peace deal, Dahal has earned notoriety as an unstable leader and for his duplicity.
Despite Deuba emerging as a saviour of Dahal and the Maoist Party, given his past records, Dahal may betray the alliance should he see benefits, say observers.
A Maoist Centre leader said that “politics is all about benefits” and his party has become the kingmaker and gained more bargaining power.
“The third party in Parliament can always make or break governments,” said Devkota.
If a stable government is the goal, according to Devkota, then the country should either go for a fully proportional representation system or directly elected executive head—either the president or the prime minister.
Former chief election commissioner Neil Kantha Uprety says the existing electoral system needs to be changed if the parties want a stable government and an end to corruption.
“For at least 15 years, Nepali parties should adopt a fully proportional election system with a minimum 5 percent threshold, an increase of two percent from the existing threshold,” Uprety told the Post. “But the candidates should be elected by the lowest local level committees of the parties concerned and there must be a provision of ‘No Vote’ to reject corrupt candidates or politicians’ kin.”
According to Uprety, minor changes in the electoral system won’t be sufficient to ensure a stable government and the prosperity desired by the country. The parties should think of a drastic change in the electoral system, he suggests.
“Parties only think of their immediate benefits and not of the country. Therefore, they cannot step out of their comfort zones,” said Uprety. “Most of the problems and corruption would end only if the parties could ensure no lawmaker becomes a minister. If that happened, experts from relevant fields could run the respective ministries.”
The framers of Nepal’s constitution had excessively focused on finding ways to ensure a stable government. The provision that a majority prime minister cannot dissolve the House was written with the sole goal of ensuring stability. However, Oli did not give two hoots to the constitutional provision and dissolved the Parliament twice. His second move to kill Parliament led to the fall of his government when the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional and upheld the claim of the opposition leader to the prime minister’s post.
Subas Nembang, who chaired two terms of the Constituent Assembly and oversaw the constitution-drafting process, said after the promulgation of the new constitution that a very good statute was drawn up but it was up to the parties to implement it.
“The constitution was drafted after lots of discussions. It was up to the parties to make use of it,” said Nembang, a politician from Oli’s party. Nembang had drawn a lot of flak for refusing to speak when Oli had dissolved the House. “The constitution is a living document. If some amendments are necessary, that should be done.”
During the constitution drafting process, the Maoist Centre was for a directly elected presidential system but the UML and the Congress rejected the idea and adopted the existing mixed electoral system—electing 60 percent representatives through direct elections and 40 percent on the basis of proportional representation.
“Whatever electoral system we are following needs a mature coalition culture which we don’t have and our coalition is merely based on certain interests,” said Ramesh Lekhak, a leader of the Nepali Congress who was actively involved in drafting the constitution. “The problem is that we couldn’t develop the kind of mentality suitable for a federal republic. Coalition culture is what our electoral system demands but it’s not been successful.”
According to Lekhak, there could be an option of adopting a fully direct electoral system (first-past-the-post).
“But we have seen in the past that the first-past-the-post system, which was practised until 1998, also could not give stable governments,” said Lekhak. “It’s time we thought of reviewing our electoral system as it’s true that it cannot give political stability. We need to discuss ways that could ensure stability.”