The Maoist PM Prachanda in Nepal recently announced local elections to be held on May 14, 2017 amidst doubts that elections would take place because the restive Madhesi Front in the southern plains opposes the announcement. The decision to go for local level elections without settling the leftover disputes and without holding federal and provincial elections remains at odds with the overall spirit of the federal constitution of Nepal. Despite that fact, there is a general understanding in Nepal that local elections would help reduce further instability and consolidate the bases for implementing federalism. But the agitating Front argues that this would be one step forward, two steps back.
Nepal’s new constitution, promulgated in September 2015 by the government of Nepali Congress PM Sushil Koirala, stipulates 3 levels of government in 7 provinces in a federal set-up – central, state and local level governments. And the constitution requires that polls for all these three levels be conducted by January 21, 2018.
However, the constitution was not accepted by the Madhesi Front -- in the context of a strong assertion of Madhesi identity -- because of their disagreements on the delimitation of certain provinces, allocation of constituencies on the basis of geography but not population, the number of Madhesi representatives in the upper house, and the problems regarding citizenship distribution, among others.
But despite the Front’s desperate calls and border disruptions, the government that took power after the promulgation of the constitution led by the Prime Minister K P Oli of United Marxist and Leninist (UML) did not amend the constitution as demanded by the Front. Nepal’s relationship with India hit a historical low as Oli turned towards China. As a result, the Maoist PM Prachanda’s government was formed based on the premises that he would keep China away, convince the restive groups, amends the constitution, holds local polls, and then pave the way for the Nepali Congress leader Sher B. Deuba to hold federal and provincial polls.
Nevertheless, it has not been easy for Prachanda to fulfill his commitments mainly because of a long altercation between UML and the Front. UML would not move an inch on redrawing the provincial maps as demanded by the Front, as that would break UML leaders’ constituency base. Thus, UML took a firm stance against constitutional amendments. UML’s anti-Madhesi position earned them a huge nationwide popularity except in some quarters of the south; one reason why UML prefers to go for elections.
After some quid pro quos between PM Prachanda and UML leader Oli, the UML softened its anti-Madhesi behavior andlet the government proceed with the constitution amendment proposal, but on the condition that Prachanda should announce the date for elections first and then speak about amendments. And he did exactly that. Prachanda, for his part, justified his decision of organizing local elections by citing the specter of democratic backsliding – he warned (which he always does) that the achievements of the “peoples’ movement” (republicanism, secularism and federalism) are in jeopardy. He has been trying to convince at least some leaders and parties from the Front to take part in the elections. The government has, at the same time, decided to deploy substantial security forces to guarantee peaceful polling.
But the Front wants the government to take back its decision for several reasons. First, they are not satisfied with the amendment bill proposed by the government and want a modified proposal; second, whatever proposal is tabled, they know that, without UML’s support, they would not get the two-third majority support; third, they themselves are not confident about their popular support in their constituencies given their inability to deliver; fourth, they are not supported by India as strongly as on previous occasions. Hence their preference to avoid elections. Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum’s Chairman Upendra Yadav, one of the parties in the Front who is boycotting talks, presents this election as a ploy of the big parties’ – Nepali Congress, UML and Maoists –to backtrack on federalism. Similarly, people across the country harbor growing resentment towards the leaders of the big parties regarding their corrupt behavior.
But in any event, given the unresolved issues and enormous challenges, for now it seems that there is no way that the government can hold the polls for either federal or provincial levels (although the UML was ok with federal elections too). In this context, boycotting and disrupting even local elections is anti-democratic because it continues to deprive people of local representatives, a situation that is already ongoing for 15 years. Moreover, the Front and big parties’ disagreements have already become unbearable for the Nepalese both in the southern plains and the mountains. Therefore, the Front must not obstruct it.
Regarding India, for the reasons discussed above, it should also play a constructive role especially by convincing the Front to cooperate. This would also be a good occasion for India to improve its image that was damaged recently. Although the outgoing Indian ambassador Ranjit Rae repeated India’s previous position of asking Nepal to take Madhesis’ requests on board, also expressed India’s willingness to support Nepal in holding the elections, which hints that India is not fully against this election. The Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Yu Hong, has also stated similar views. While there is a lot of apprehension among Nepalese regarding potential violence due to this election, external Nepal observers must understand that portraying this election as an injustice to Madhesi is unhelpful and will hurt the Nepalese even more; sometimes the ends justify the means.