Nepal: Calling the Bluff?
As preparations for Constituent Assembly (CA) elections on November 19, 2013, gather momentum in Nepal, the Mohan Baidya-led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist-Baidya) appears increasingly isolated in its opposition to the elections.
This acquires a special significance in view of the failed August 24, 2013, round table conference, where the High Level Political Committee (HLPC) decided to go ahead with poll preparations, pending negotiation with CPN-Maoist-Baidya. In a shock to the Baidya faction, the Ashok Rai-led Federal Socialist Party-Nepal (FSP-N), which was agitating against CA elections along with the CPN-Maoist-Baidya and other fringe parties, reached a five-point agreement with the HLPC on September 6, 2013, to participate in the CA elections. Earlier, on August 15, another agitating party, the Upendra Yadav-led Federal Democratic Front (FDF), had also reached an agreement with the HLPC to participate in the elections.
According to the agreement with FSP-N, the HLPC agreed to raise the strength of the CA from 585 to 601-members and to hold an 'all-party meeting' with participation of all political parties represented in the dissolved CA. Earlier, the HLPC had agreed to the FDF demand to increase CA strength from 491 to 585. The original number, 491, had been decided in the 11-point agreement. The previous CA had 601 members. Regarding the all party-meeting, both sides agreed that "the government will be requested to hold an all-party meeting to ensure CA polls on the scheduled date." The agitating political parties, including the FSP-N and the CPN-Maoist-Baidya-led 33-party alliance, had been insisting on holding a round-table conference to discuss 'major contentious political issues' - which really meant reopening issues settled by the 11-point agreement. Interestingly, FSP-N delayed the signing of the agreement for a day after giving 'in principle consent', apparently to consult Mohan Baidya regarding the all party meeting. However, the terms of the proposed all party meeting left little scope for Baidya to press for his two main demands - postponement of November 19elections and dissolution of the present Government.
Meanwhile, Nepali Congress (NC) President Sushil Koirala on September 6, 2013, said that elections to the CA would not be put off even if some parties so desired, and the country was now headed towards elections. Koirala added that initiatives would be taken till the eleventh hour to bring the dissenting parties on board, but the forthcoming CA elections would not be put off even if absolute consensus was not reached. Referring to the 33-party alliance led by the CPN-Maoist-Baidya, Koirala stated, "We are ready to meet all demands of the dissenting parties except postponing the CA elections date and dissolution of the incumbent Government."
Koirala's statements on September 6, 2013, were largely reflected in the all party meet that was convened the next day and endorsed by the agreement signed with FSPN. The CPN-Maoist-Baidya, predictably, did not attend the meeting, declaring that the invitation to attend the meeting came with the precondition to discuss holding of elections on November 19. Expectedly, moreover, a majority of parties attending the meeting remained firm on the November 19 poll date. Minister for Information and Communications, Madhav Paudel, observed after the meeting, "We are further encouraged after today's meeting as most of the representatives from over 24 political parties attending the discussions have stood for holding the CA polls on November 19." However, the unanimous view was also to exert maximum effort to bring the CPN-Maoist-Baidya on board, and wait for a consensus as long as the Election Commission's (EC) calendar of events allowed. On September 4, 2013, the EC declared that agitating parties could not be accommodated if they were not on board before the commission started designing the ballot papers on September 9, 2013.
Notwithstanding its progressive isolation, CPN-Maoist-Baidya is yet to blink. Instead, the party has started training cadres in Rukum District to disrupt the polls, though its threats are unlikely to have significant impact on the polls. The real issue is whether the EC and all or some of the major parties themselves are prepared for the polls on that agreed date. Despite claims by the EC, there are skeptics who doubt its capacity to put in place everything required to conduct polls smoothly. Another big distraction is the month-long festivities of Dasain and Tihar in October which Nepalis celebrate with great enthusiasm. Official work as well as party work would be the last thing people would care to engage in during this period. With such a big distraction in October, elections on November 19 would be difficult even if all parties were in agreement. It would, consequently, not be entirely surprising if the HLPC agreed to another postponement to a more suitable date in March-April 2014 'for the sake of consensus', and CPN-Maoist-Baidya then agrees to participate. C. P. Mainali of the Communist Party of Nepal-Marxist Leninist (CPN-ML) remarked at the September 7, 2013, all party meeting that the November 19 date is "not cast in stone." Another participant, Keshav Man Shakya of the Nepal Rashtriya Party advised the participants not to exclude a party with 92 former lawmakers from the poll process, in order to ensure that the process remained meaningful. When CPN-Maoist-Baidya broke away from the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M), 92 out of a total of 229 CA members of UCPN-M went with the Baidya faction.
Meanwhile, another all-party meeting called by the President, Dr Ram Baran Yadav, on September 15 to consider the demands put forward by Mohan Baidya-led alliance remained inconclusive with parties agreeing to meet again on September 16.
Amid the political uncertainties regarding the elections, the contentious Army Integration process was concluded on August 26, 2013, as 70 former People's Liberation Army (PLA) combatants selected as officer-cadets were conferred their insignia of rank in the Nepal Army. Of the 70 officer-cadets, Yam Bahadur Adhikari was given the rank of Colonel in accordance with the earlier agreement. Among others passing out at the function, Bashudev Ghimire and Padam Bahadur Tamang were given the rank of lieutenant colonel. Another 13 were conferred the rank of major, in addition to 30 captains and 24 lieutenants. The cadets will join a three-month bridging course before taking on their new responsibilities. Out of 19,602 verified Maoist combatants around 14,000 chose voluntary retirement and received cash packages. Altogether 1,444 former Maoist combatants participated in the training, including 70 training for officer level ranks and the remaining 1,373 for other ranks. The ranks were determined in accordance with the recommendation of the Special Committee, on which leaders from the major political forces were represented. The integration process, an important cornerstone of the peace process that started with thecomprehensive peace agreement, was never smooth, with controversies regarding the number and modalities of integration and finally the issue of rank determination of the combatants, holding up progress periodically.
The contentious issue of federalism, which remained unresolved in the last CA and eventually led to its dissolution, still remains knotty. The demand of the people of the Terai (Madhesh) region to have 'One Madhesh, One Province' has remained an important strand of the tangled federalism issue. However, what could augur well for Nepal is the gradual realization among Madheshi political parties that such a demand is not attainable, as a single Madhesh province would fail to address the aspirations of the diverse communities living in the Terai-Madhesh. According to media reports, in the run up to the scheduled CA elections, most Madheshi political parties have dropped the 'one Madhesh one Province' demand in favour of two Pradesh (provinces). Chandeshwar Sharma Khatbe, Secretary of Madheshi People's Right Forum-Democratic (MPRF-D) stated on August 26, that the demand for 'one Madhesh one province' was futile as it was neither practical nor scientific: "We have proposed two provinces for Madhesh in our election manifesto for the forthcoming Constituent Assembly elections." Similarly, Co-chairman of the Rajendra Mahato-led Sadbhvana Party (SP) Laxman Lal Karn stated on August 26 that his party also endorsed the two province demand in its three-day Central Committee meeting concluded at Janakpur earlier in the day. Similarly, the Mahanth Thakur-led Terai Madhesh Democratic Party (TMDP) Central Committee (CC) member Ganesh Nepali noted on August 26 that the 'one Madhesh, one province' demand was not acceptable to the Tharu communities of the Terai. "The formation of two provinces in the Terai would pave the way for taking the Tharu communities into confidence," he noted.
However, MJF-N continues to stick to the 'one Madhesh one Province' stand,arguing that two provinces would not solve the key issue of Federalism. Nevertheless, the party conceded that, considering the violence that erupted in the Terai region in 2008 following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the two-Province proposal (in Madhesh) could be a good starting point.
Despite some positive developments, Mohan Baidya's continuing threats to disrupt the polls and the HLPC's posture suggesting that his bluff would be called, does not auger well for the strong foundation that the new Constituent Assembly desperately needs. Baidya's demands appear to be nothing but an agenda to delay the CA polls, possibly to put his organization in proper shape before election, or possibly even as a proxy for other political forces which are not yet ready for the polls. Under the circumstances, the postponement of elections till March-April 2014, without disrupting the present political arrangement, may appear attractive even to several political formations that have currently accepting the current election schedule.
(The writer Fakir Mohan Pradhan is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)
(Posted on 17-09-2013)