Dashain is under way and there’s a pleasant nip in the Kathmandu air this month. However, while the annual festival that marks the victory of good over evil is the high point in the Nepalese calendar, not everyone is in a celebratory mood this year.
Young people and police face off at a demonstration in Kathmandu in 2012.
In fact, many people are on edge as they contemplate the pending elections on Nov 19 for the Constituent Assembly (CA), seen as the only hope for a way out of the political limbo in which the seven-year-old democracy has been stranded.
Frantic preparations are afoot with the Election Commission pulling out all the stops in making the necessary arrangements and political parties stepping up their campaigns for the 601-member CA, which is also the interim legislature. Neighbours India and China and other countries have pledged their support for the polls, seeing them as crucial for Nepal’s future.
“There is no alternative to elections to revitalise the democratic process and ensure political stability,” CA chairman and de facto Prime Minister Khil Raj Regmi said in his address to the UN General Assembly on Sept 28.
“The election will provide the mandate of the people for writing a constitution, advance civil and political rights, ensure people’s sovereignty in decision-making in state affairs and institutionalise multi-party democracy, federalism and republicanism.”
As well, he told the UN, the election would be “instrumental in completing the remaining task of the peace process”.
His optimism, however, is not shared with the same zeal by the masses that see the elections as a necessary evil, having being disillusioned by the repeated failures of the last body.
“I am not very hopeful,” says Kathmandu-based doctor Usha Kiran, 30. “The politicians are not sincere and are too concerned about their political gains to think of the future of the nation.”
Fraught with political bickering right from the start of its democratic existence, Nepal has had six prime ministers in five years and endless political turmoil. All this came after a decade-long civil war between the Maoists and the government that ended with the loss of 16,000 lives and the overthrow of the 240-year-old monarchy in 2006.
In 2008, the CA was formed through an electoral process to frame the constitution of the fledgling republic and finalise its transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democracy by May 2010. The Assembly’s term was given four extensions — first for a year, then twice for three months each, and lastly for six months — before it was finally dissolved on May 28, 2012. The constitution remained a distant dream and the transition a prolonged agony.
“In all likelihood, it would be impossible to start making significant repairs even after the upcoming election, because there are no high-quality leaders to put the country on a more peaceful, prosperous and just path,” Ganga Thapa, a professor of politics at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, wrote in an opinion piece in the Nepalese daily Republica on Sept 30.
“There is plenty of the blame game, but the political leadership in Nepal has never learned. Significant damage has already been done to public support for democracy, which is getting worse by the day. Some find the country still in the conflict trap and some see it squeezed between the neighbours’ clutches.”
To hope that the election will be the panacea for Nepal’s woes would be naive given the lack of political will displayed by the leaders, entrusted with drafting the constitution, in the last CA.
Each time the assembly’s term was extended, around midnight — hours or minutes before its expiry — the rallying point always became power-sharing in the government. Although it was commendable that members across parties put together the first draft through 11 thematic committees, the way they handled the contentious issues, such as the nature of federalism and the election system, exposed their eagerness to put constitution-writing on the back burner for the sake of political power.
While it was in the interest of the country to complete the peace process and promulgate a new constitution sooner, party leaders were not ready to risk their own interests by leaving decisions to the people’s representatives.
The leaders of the three main parties — the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the left-of-centre Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) — held closed-door meetings seeking consensus on contentious issues, rather than allow voting in the House, which had 601 members representing 25 political parties.
Some observers have blamed the battle between consensus politics and majority politics for not just the political stalemate, but also halting the economic progress of Nepal.
“Yet, one can only feel optimistic, for the lack of choice,” said Rajaram Gautam, the op-ed editor of Kantipur, the largest-selling Nepalese daily.
But for the moment, the worry for Nepalese citizens is not what will happen after the elections, but whether they will be held at all. Hardline Maoists of Mohan Baidya’s faction, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M), are refusing to participate and threatening violence if the polls take place without them.
“It is necessary for the hardline Maoists to be convinced and brought into the fold. The CPN-M (which broke away from the UCPN-M) is not a force that can be dismissed because when they left (after the dissolution of the CA), they did so with 91 members and some senior leaders who enjoy a lot of clout,” said Mr Gautam. “Otherwise, the situation could get grim and violent with Maoists on the one side and the Army on the other.”
The Himalayan country seems set for an ominous Dashain and Tihar (Diwali, the festival of lights), even though all that the people ask for is a clear victory of good over evil and lasting peace.