Holding peaceful elections was the easy part, resolving the deadlock on the constitution will be harder
‘Only once in an era, comes a day,’ was NC leader Girija Prasad Koirala’s opening statement when the dissolved Constituent Assembly was first convened on 28 May 2008. Koirala is no more and the CA he addressed was dissolved last year. But this generation has lived to see yet another day and now has another chance to fulfil that purpose.
More than 70 per cent of Nepali citizens cast their vote on Tuesday, mostly free of fear and intimidation. Preliminary results hint at a shift in the power balance with the Maoists trailing behind the NC and UML. Media and analysts, who had been off the mark last time, were more cautious in predicting the outcome this time.
Analysts had been predicting beforehand that the Maoists would lose popular support they enjoyed in 2008, mostly because of the media exposes of corruption scandals and unpopular decisions taken during their time in government. The results in Kathmandu suggest that the UCPN (M) will pay heavily for the road expansion project and the decision to bulldoze illegal squatters along the Bagmati corridor during Baburam Bhattarai government without ensuring relocation of the landless. Similarly, sheltering war criminals within the party and promoting those in the Nepal Army have come back to haunt the ‘people’s party’.
The embezzlement of cantonment money gave the top leaders bad press and the comrades from the disgruntled faction campaigning against them has contributed to UCPN (M) losing ground even in traditional strongholds like Makwanpur.
However, this is not a winner-takes-all-battle. Whatever the composition of the next CA, Nepal’s Interim Constitution mandates that the parties work in consensus to draft the statute. In the last CA elections, when Madhav Nepal was defeated, Girija Prasad Koirala and Pushpa Kamal Dahal requested him to join the CA as a nominated member stating that his presence was necessary to facilitate the constitution drafting.
Secondly, the large presence of a party inside the CA does not necessarily guarantee its diktat there. Despite being the biggest party, the Maoists were unable to set their terms and had to backtrack from several propositions including that of drafting a ‘People’s Constitution’. Then there are cross-party political caucuses that will play an important role in shaping debates within the assembly floor. In 2012, despite consensus among big parties to form an expert committee to draw the boundaries of future federal states, leaders from indigenous caucus and the Madhesi Front played a decisive role in forcing the CA to agree on a State Restructuring Commission.
Those watching this election closely also believe that the pattern of voting in the proportional representation will be different from the first-past-the-post. The whim of Hindu nationalism and campaigning against secularism could see a surge in support for Kamal Thapa’s right wing RPP-Nepal. Election slogans like ‘ek vote dai lai, ek vote gai lai’ were popular in places like Dharan.
Chances are, the Maoists may lose out on the FPTP seats but gain with the PR votes, just like the NC and UML did in the last elections. Also, the collective strength of Madhes based parties could once again make them a decisive force in the CA.
Size will matter in cobbling together a government in the legislative parliament but it won’t matter much inside the CA. We have seen lawmakers cross the floor and take up a stand against their own parties on contentious issues. We have seen two leaders from marginalised Dalit and Muslim communities stall the proceedings for several days demanding that their concerns be addressed. That was the purpose of having an inclusive CA and it is too early in the day to call winners and losers.
The new CA must deliver a constitution that reflects the majority’s concern and accommodates the aspirations of the minority. Unless it fulfils that mandate, it would have failed its purpose and in that case, we all lose.