17-23 February 2017 #846

Chicken or egg?

What comes first, election or amendment?
Binita Dahal
Diwakar Chettri

The Election Commission (EC) has been repeatedly asking the government to announce the election date. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has responded by giving a date when he will announce the date: 19 February.

That is also the deadline that the EC gave the government if the first of three elections that are supposed to be completed in 2017 to avoid a constitution crisis can be held by May.

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Dahal was already under pressure to forge a consensus with the Tarai-centric parties that have flatly rejected elections if their demand for constitutional amendments are not met. Now, there is an added sense of urgency as the opposition UML has started exploratory meetings with the Madhesi parties.

Dahal’s meeting with Chief Election Commissioner on Wednesday was not the first time that he has promised a date for elections. But he hopes to negotiate over the weekend with the UML, NC and the Madhesi parties to forge a consensus by then.

If wishes were horses, however, Dahal would ride.  The UML has been obstructing parliamentary proceedings for over two months, delaying not just debate on the amendments but also the passage of necessary electoral bills. Tarai-centric parties have warned of new agitation if elections are held without amendments. And now the UML and the Madhesi parties are talking – that is not good news for Dahal.

Even if the government can announce the date, there are still doubts about whether local elections can be held. The Maoists do not want to face elections, the UML is confident it has public opinion in its favour, whereas the NC wants to consolidate its hold in the Tarai. The Tarai- centric parties, for their part, think they can dominate neither local nor provincial councils.  They would rather stand aside to show that the government has failed to implement the constitution and hold the elections. This opposition to Dahal is what has brought the UML and the Madhesi Front together.

Meanwhile, NC Chairman Deuba who supported Dahal last August to lead their coalition, is having doubts about Dahal stepping down as agreed in April. Meanwhile, President Bidya Devi Bhandari has urged all parties to agree on elections and focus on implementing the new constitution.

Dahal got to be prime minister in August after ditching the UML and forcing K P Oli to step down. Dahal doesn’t want to make the same mistake he did in 2009 after sacking the army chief, and wants to be seen as wanting elections even if he doesn’t. Oli is angling for revenge. Deuba is in panic mode.

The Maoists are now so badly split and the governing Maoist Centre is so discredited that it fears falling to fifth place in Parliament if elections are held. Dahal wants to go through the motions of an elections, but doesn’t want it to actually happen. The Madhesi Front has also sensed that it is not going to do well even in its own heartland since most people are fed up with the leadership. Which is why it is raising one objection after another on the amendment, determined to stall polls.

When the government is taking too much time to fix the date of the local level election people have started predicting that the government will not be able to hold all three elections within the time. Because of the delays, there are now serious doubts not just about local elections but also voting for provincial assemblies and the federal parliament. This could lead to a constitution crisis.

However, the issue is sure to go to Supreme Court. There is a precedent for the Supreme Court to allow the first Constituent Assembly to extend its term, and the full bench giving it the last chance in 2012. Faced with such a crisis, the political cartel is also expected to finally reach a consensus to extend its own term, showing that in Nepal – just like in love and war -- anything is possible. 

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