The making of Nepal’s second constituent assembly

By Dr. Krishna Hachhethu [1], 19 November 2013
Voters lining up at polling station to vote: C/Flickr/Ashish Lohorung
Voters lining up at polling station to vote: C/Flickr/Ashish Lohorung

Nepalese have gone to the polls across the country today to elect a new Constituent Assembly (CA) which is expected to finalize Nepal’s protracted constitution making process. A previous CA elected in 2008 was disbanded and the process suspended in May 2012 after it failed to agree on a constitution. 601 seats are to be filled through a parallel electoral system—240 elected via first past the post system, 335 via proportional representation and 26 to be nominated by the government.

With 122 contesting parties (up from 56 in the last elections), 12.1 out of Nepal’s 26 million people registered to vote and over 97% of respondents in a Citizen’s Survey conducted by International IDEA this year indicating an eagerness to vote in the polls, the long-awaited election is clearly creating a great deal of excitement. Nepal’s Chief Election Commissioner is predicting an 80% turn-out rate while major contesting political parties are promising to deliver the constitution within a year of the elections. While such evidence indisputably suggests the country may finally be waking up from its political inertia, there is still reason for skepticism.

Firstly, Nepal’s political landscape, as seen over the past years, can be very unpredictable. Political parties remain deeply divided on some of the issues that derailed the previous process such as on how to take the country forward in general and the elections in particular. The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist), a splinter group of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal, (UCPN-Maoist) and a lead actor of 33 anti-poll parties which wanted a more representative government formed to oversee the elections, has launched boycott campaigns often resulting in violence. While this does not raise any security concerns serious enough to disrupt the polls (over 59% of the population still judge the security situation better than during the 2008 CA elections) it does raise anxiety about the general political climate in which the elections are taking place, and what it might degenerate into.

Secondly, there is still a great deal of public disappointment with the political class in terms of how they have managed this process to date. 64% of respondents to the Survey 2013 say they have no trust in political parties. This seems to suggest that the eagerness to vote and voter intentions so far registered are driven by the absence of a credible alternative. The implication is that Nepal’s three major parties – UCPN (Maoist), Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal, Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) – will likely be returned to power, even if with a change in numerical configuration, when the poll results come in.

Lead contenders

The first is the UCPN (Maoist) which, despite suffering a split, is looking to become the majority party in the nation. For this to happen, it will need to win at least 301 seats, up from its total of 237 in the last elections. The UCPN (Maoist) has the advantage of being the catalyst for many of the key changes in Nepal’s recent political history, such as the transformation from a monarchy to a secular republic. Its key election position is ‘federalism with identity, constitution with federalism’, which resonates with the larger masses of Janjanatis and Madhesis. The party also retains strong support amongst marginalized groups such as the Dalits and squatters, who are seeking radical progressive changes.

The second party, the NC is the UCPN (Maoist)’s immediate rival. The second largest party in the old CA (115 seats), and Nepal’s oldest party, its contribution to Nepali democracy is unparalled. It was a key protagonist of the 1950-51 successful armed revolution to introduce democracy in the country, a lead actor of the 1990 mass movement to restore multiparty democracy, and a key player in the April 2006 Jana Anodolan II (revolution). In the post Jana Andolan II era, the party has shifted its position from the Centre to the Right, as well as embracing federalism, which it previously opposed. However, its key strength over its rivals is that it has remained steadfastly united despite some internal differences over its new pro-territorial federalism stance. Unless ethnicity— also a key issue to look out for—prevails, the party is likely to make some gains.

For the UML, the third largest party in the last CA, this election provides great challenges. Its traditionally leftist ideology which was sellable in the 1990s is now overshadowed by the UCPN (Maoist)’s emphasis on state restructuring. Even its tactical swing from left to center has not brought it much appeal since the NC is still considered as the nucleus of centrist forces. Further, the party has also suffered a split and will have to split its votes with the breakaway Federal Democratic Party, formed mostly by UML’s former leaders and cadres. Nevertheless, with its strong organizational bases and its popularity among the media, professional organizations and NGOs, it is hoping to improve its position the polls. With this reality, it is unlikely that the new CA will be much different from the previous one in terms of composition and— one may add, unfortunately—the politics that will be played there.

Key issues

Although primarily aimed at moving the stalled constitution making process forward through the reinstatement of the Constituent Assembly, socio-economic rather than political issues are— interestingly—more on the agenda. “Since we have no knowledge of manifestos prepared by the political parties we will vote for the candidate who promises to build roads in our village” are frequent sentiments expressed by voters.

Rural Nepali woman displays ballot paper: C/Flickr/ United Nations

Ethnicity, as hinted earlier, is also going to be an influential factor in this election. Surveys indicate that people who prefer ethnic over national identity have increased constantly from 22% in 2004 to 25% in 2007 and 32% in 2013. Among the respondents to the IDEA survey for instance, 17% preferred to vote along ethnic lines, even higher among the respondents of Janajatis (23%) and Madhesis (26%). A number of reasons account for this. One is the ethnicity-driven social division that has remained a key feature of Nepali politics since the explosion of ethnic tension in May 2012 over the clash between identity-based federalism—preferred by the Janajati and Madhesis—and territorial federalism promoted by hill castes. The second is the emergence of new ethnic-based political forces such as the Akhanda Nepal Party and the Federal Socialist Party, both of which can be seen as products of the deep ethnic polarization that currently defines Nepali society.

Election outcome and implications on constituent process

Despite the UCPN (Maoist), the NC and the UML being the leading contenders, there is no wave in favor of any of the three, let alone the other remaining parties. There is still a great deal of uncertainty whether any party will get the 301 seats necessary to give it a clear majority and there is a real possibility of a hung parliament. Should that happen, finalizing the constitution is likely to get more difficult as a two-thirds majority is needed to pass all the constitutional provisions. Complicating the situation is the fact that political parties have revived their old position on major contentious issues such as the system of government, electoral system and federal design. On the first two for instance, while there is an informal compromise between the leading three parties to adopt a semi-presidential system and a mixed-electoral system, they are still very much split on the form of federal design for the state. The UCPN (Maoist), Madhesi-based parties and ethnic-based parties have taken a common position for ethnic and regional identity based federalism, whereas the NC, UML, and other small parties on the left share a common position for territorial-based federalism. Whatever alliances are built within the CA that emerges from this election are therefore likely to be built around party positions on the federal question.

Such an outcome clearly puts the country back at the dangerous crossroads it faced in May 2012. In that event, only two possible options for moving the constitution making process forward appear feasible. One is to restore the 15 may 2012 political understanding which passed a resolution on all outstanding contentious issues, including an agreement on federal design with an 11 provinces model. The other alternative is to resolve the issue of the federal design of the state by popular referendum should no party get the two-thirds majority needed to pass the provision. But if what happened during the last CA is anything to go by, the key question that arises is whether the parties will even consider these options. This reality highlights how much uncertainty still bedevils Nepal’s constitutional transition.

[1] Dr. Krishna Hachhethu is a Professor associated with the Central Department of Political Science, Tribhuvan University, Nepal

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.


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