Ending the Political Transition? Analysing the Nepal elections from an inclusion perspective

Following a decade long Maoist insurgency (1996-2005) and the peace process that followed it, Nepal elected political representatives at all three levels of government: the local election held in three phases, followed by election for seven provincial assemblies, and the lower house of federal parliament between May and December 2017. The last election for local government was held 20 years ago in 1997.  The provincial elections are a first for Nepal, which consolidate the demands for state restructuring through federalism. These elections took place despite political disagreements, contentions about the constitutional provisions on provincial boundaries and political violence.  The Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist- Leninists (CPN-UML), known for its reluctant federalism stance, swept the polls at all levels of the government. Just before the election for the lower house of the parliament, CPN-UML and the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC) formed the Left Alliance, which won landslide victory in the national-level election for the lower house of parliament.

The much contention around the writing of Nepal’s Constitution also reflected on the elections in 2017.  After the massive Nepal earthquake in 2015, in a bid to expedite the Constitution drafting process, which has been on going since 2008, major political parties signed a 16-points agreement, deciding on all the disputed issues of the constitution like electoral system, federalism, forms of government, and judiciary. What this essentially meant was, issues of federalism and devolution of power to provinces, which was under discussions in the Constituent Assembly, were all decided by a political pact between major political parties, leaving marginalised political forces, especially the Madhesi groups, dissatisfied on questions of provincial boundary delineation, proportionate representation, and the number of seats proportionate to the population. With the first constitutional amendment, two major demands of Madhesi forces, including, proportionate representation and seat allocation in the Parliament on the basis of population were recognised while the issue of boundary delineation remains undecided.

Compared to the Constituent Assembly elections of 2008 and 2013 that largely centred around the constitution writing and the peace process, the electoral debate in 2017 focussed on issues of stability, economic and infrastructure development, and the cost of out-migration (Nayak, 2017). Electoral debate is a plausible indicator to ascertain if the agenda of the peace process has been institutionalised. This blog offers a discussion on how might this election impact agenda of state restructuring and transitional justice.

State Restructuring: Federalism, Inclusion and Secularism

A fundamental tenet of Nepal’s peace process was state restructuring, where Nepal would transition into federal, secular and inclusive state from a centralised, Hindu and an exclusive state.

Of the four broad political forces in Nepal, namely, the Nepali Congress (NC), CPN-MC, CPN-UML and two prominent Madhesi based parties, this election saw an alliance between the CPN-MC and CPN-UML. With regards to agenda of federalism in Nepal, the political parties could broadly be categorised into two opposing camps: with MC, Madhesh based parties and some indigenous ethnic parties proposing identity based models of federalism, while the NC and CPN-UML supporting administrative federalism, the latter largely perceived as ‘reluctant federalists’ (Kumar, 2015) . The ‘Left Alliance’, which won the 2017 elections vouching for ‘stability for prosperity’, thus brings together two forces that have largely held different views on federalism in Nepal. The electoral result is thus likely to impact discussions and substance of federalism and inclusion.

The electoral results reveal that centre-province relations, especially in province two where the Madhesh based parties swept the polls, is likely to be challenging. While the Left Alliance won the election nationwide, it has largely been rejected in the Province. In the Madhesh region, most Madhesi leaders who campaigned for a constitution amendment have won seats in the lower house of the parliament.  This is the only province, which will be have a distinct political agenda of inclusion, unlike the ruling government at the Centre (the Left Alliance).

The elections have revealed three priorities for the Nepali electorate:  the search for political stability and peace, the demand for fast and comprehensive development and assertion against India (Muni, 2017). The last of which has a particular relevance for Madhesh based groups. The CPN-UML whose electoral mandate has been largely based on being seen as a ‘nationalist’, with its leader KP Oli being able to stand up to India in the midst of the Indian blockade of border points in 2015. The CPN-UML like many other political forces have tended to conflate issues of Madhesi identity and federalism with Indian strategic interests, given the ethnic similarities and geographic proximity between the Madhesh region and India. Given that CPN-UML has been against any move on constitutional amendments addressing the demands of Madhesi groups, its landslide victory in the election and its alliance with CPN-MC is likely to halt any move on constitutional amendments addressing the demands of Madhesi groups including changes in provincial boundaries.

Nepal followed a bottom-up approach of electoral sequencing with local elections held between May and June, and a simultaneous provincial and parliamentary elections were held between 26 November and 7 December 2017. With regards to elections in transitional countries much has been debated about how to sequence elections in peace processes as well as how to sequence elections at different levels of government as countries emerge from conflicts. Some scholars like Diamond advocated for a simultaneous national and local elections, while Reilly preferred a ‘bottom up approach’ of holding local elections before elections at national level (Reilly, 2008). The Nepal experiment, however, showed that with provincial and federal elections being held simultaneously, the issues related to provinces did not did not get as much debate or attention from political parties as well as the media (Pokhrael, 2017).

Exclusion by the Nepali state reflected cleavages of caste, ethnicity, gender, religion as well as class. In the peace process the agenda of inclusion has been prioritised: the constitution mandates a third representation of women in all organs of the state and a mixed electoral system with First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) and Proportional Representation (PR) elections. However, in terms of gender mainstreaming, this election already marks a diluting down of provisions of gender inclusion in its various manifestations. First, only six female candidates won the elections to the house of representatives under the FPTP category, which presents a decline from the 2013 and 2008 levels where 10 and 30 representatives were elected respectively under FTTP (The Kathmandu Post, 2017b). The constitution mandates at least 33 per cent of female candidacy under FTTP and the provision of PR system is to be enacted only when FTTP fails to bring about a third of the representation. However, political parties  ‘are treating the PR system as the only avenue to ensure the one-third representation of female candidates in federal parliament’ and fielding few female candidates under FTTP (The Kathmandu Post, 2017a).

In terms of youth inclusion, though young people between 16-40 years account for 40.33% of the population, they are largely left out of leadership position within political parties. This election, however, had positive impact on youth inclusion in polity.  As political parties and the prominent leaders concentrated on national level elections, at the provincial level elections young leaders found space being nominated to contest elections.[1]

Secularism was also a part of the state restructuring agenda in Nepal, where Nepali state transformed from a Hindu state to a secular state. The most prominent force, Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), which has stressed on a restoration of a Hindu State, democracy with constitutional monarchy in their election manifesto. However, all stalwarts of the RPP, including some prominent former Ministers have lost their seats. This signals that secularism, which may take time to be realised in practice in a country like Nepal with an overwhelming Hindu population, is likely not to be a decisive issue electorally.

Transitional Justice

Transitional justice has largely been absent from electoral priorities of major forces. Despite some election manifesto, like that of NC, mentioning giving primacy to inclusive democracy and human rights, it does not touch up on issues of transitional justice. During the peace process, two Commissions, namely the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Commission on Investigation of Disappeared Persons (COID) were established, which had registered over 60,000 complaints from victims of crimes committed both by the security forces as well the Maoists during the civil war.

As the Commissions are headed for end of their mandate in February 2018, the victims still awaiting justice. The NC, which oversaw the mobilization of the Nepal Army resulting in an excess of human rights abuse during the conflict, and the CPN-MC which in its fight against the state also had perpetuated some gross human rights violations, have never taken up the issues of transitional justice in Nepal. The only party that has raised issues of addressing wartime crimes was CPN-UML, despite its tactical use of the transitional justice agenda to threaten the CPN-MC. It had been reported that one of the reasons, the CPN-UML and CPN-MC coalition government broke down in the past was due to UML’s scrutiny of war time crimes committed by the CPN-MC (Dahal, 2016). With the CPN-UML and CPN-MC forging the ‘Left Alliance’ and taking forward the merger of the two parties, transitional justice is likely to be a much more peripheral issue.

While elections are largely taken as exit strategies, there needs to be a critical assessment if they actually consolidate or squander the gains of the peace process. Further, whether elections do or undo the legacy still needs further evidence. The future of inclusion and state restructuring will depend on how the Left Alliance and the CPN-UML more specifically interpret their mandate. Will the interpretation be seen as a desire for stability or as a continuation of the status quo on the state restructuring and federalism is yet to be seen?

Author: Monalisa Adhikari, PSRP

Photo: Naresh Shrestha, Voters are seen lined up to exercise their franchise for the provincial and parliamentary elections at Basantapur polling booth, in Kathmandu, on Thursday, December 7, 2017. Retrieved from The Himalayan Times

See our other publications on Nepal:

Gender and Nepal’s transition from war

Nepal- Case Study

Two steps forward, one step back The Nepal peace process

Peace, power and inclusive change in Nepal Political Settlements in Practice

References

Kumar, A. (2015, April 16). Nepal: The Politics of Constitution Drafting. Indian Council of World Affairs.

Dahal, P. K. (2016, August). Views that Maoists are afraid of transitional justice are flawed [The Kathmandu Post]. Retrieved from http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/news/2016-08-01/views-that-maoists-are-afraid-of-transitional-justice-are-flawed.html

Muni, S. D. (2017, December 16). With the Left Alliance Now Dominant in Nepal, India Must Reach Out With Positive Agenda. The Wire.

Nayak, N. (2017, December 12). What Nepal’s Elections say about its Foreign Policy. South Asian Voices.

Pokhrael, K. (2017, December 5). Pradesh Haruko bhavi Rajnitik Paridrishya. Kantipur. Retrieved from https://www.kantipurdaily.com/opinion/2017/12/05/20171205065307.html

Reilly, B. (2008). Post-war elections: uncertain turning points of transition. In A. K. Jarstad & T. D. Sisk (Eds.), From War to Democracy Dilemmas of Peacebuilding (pp. 157–181). Cambridge University Press.

The Kathmandu Post. (2017a, December). Investing in inclusion. Tha Kathmandu Post. Retrieved from http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/news/2017-12-15/investing-in-inclusion.html

The Kathmandu Post. (2017b, December 14). No. of directly elected female candidates slumps further http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/news/2017-12-14/no-of-directly-elected-female-candidates-slumps-further.html. The Kathmandu Post. Retrieved from http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/news/2017-12-14/no-of-directly-elected-female-candidates-slumps-further.html

[1] Interview with Dipendra Jha, 5 December 2017, Edinburgh

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