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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Polls invert Nepal's political landscape

(First published by Asia Times Online on Dec 26, 2013)

Following a binge of adventurism and misgovernance over past six years, the erstwhile largest party of the ex-rebels in Nepal has suffered a humiliating setback in recent polls. Among its ramifications can be the delegitimization of their agenda in state restructuring. The challenges in front of the victorious 'centrist' parties are substantial but opportunities of drafting the new constitution through consensus are no less appealing.

 A nationwide revolt culminating in collapse of the erstwhile executive monarchy followed by three general elections under the multiparty democratic system; a decade long armed insurgency followed by even more powerful unarmed revolt and finally two rounds of elections for the Constituent Assembly (CA) after the failure of the first CA to draft constitution- this is the brief summary of large scale political developments in Nepal over the past three and half decades.

When the early advances towards democracy after the end of the Rana regime in 1951 are also included, a clear oscillation between a more open and democratic system and a more opaque and authoritarian system can be seen.

The earliest step towards democracy was the formation of the first elected government under B P Koirala of Nepali Congress in 1959 after a difficult management of the chaos that followed the collapse of century-long monolithic dynastic rule of the Ranas.

That nascent experiment was, however, sabotaged by the then king Mahendra who consolidated power by ousting the Koirala government in 1960 giving way to three decades of chauvinist rule by the monarchy. It took the mighty movement of 1990 to bring the monarchy to ceremonial status while giving the executive power to the elected government.

It was, however, not long before the discontent brewed against the new system eventually snowballing as the armed leftist rebellion waged by the Nepal Communist Party (Maoist). That led to the most violent decade (1996-2006) in modern history of Nepal. This decade also saw the grotesque murder of the entire royal family in 2001 bringing in Gyanendra as the new king. A parallel development was  the increasing transfer of power from the PM's office to the royal palace culminating in an overt coup in 2005 that made the then king Gyanendra the executive chief of the country.

The violent conflict as well as the active role of monarchy were brought to a halt after the political parties in Kathmandu successfully joined hands with the rebel Maoists in a bid to oust the monarchy in 2006. The monarchy was uprooted altogether as the first session of the CA declared Nepal a republic in 2008.

Not the least because the Maoists had lured people from marginalized and minority communities with the promise of addressing their grievances, the issues of federalism and secularism suddenly found a wide acceptance and priority in a unitary state ruled for centuries by the high-caste Hindu elites from the hills.
After the first CA elections held in 2008 after much lackluster made the former rebels the largest political party in Nepal, their agenda of inclusion and federalism were further legitimized. That was a trendsetting event in Nepal's recent history.

A crack was, however, bound to appear between the relatively new but largest party with the background of participating in a violent conflict and committed to federating the country on the one hand and the formerly dominant parties-- namely Nepali Congress (NC) and Nepal Communist Party (UML)-- accustomed to parliamentary democracy in a unitary state. The newly prominent regional parties from the southern plains which went as far as demanding a single Madhesh in the south with right to self-determination, predictably aligned with the ex-rebels thereby unworkably polarizing the political scenario.

With failure to sort out these major differences, the tussle resulted in the collapse of the first CA without promulgating a constitution in 2012 even after an extended tenure of four years.

After much haggling and foot-dragging in a transition period without end in sight, the parties eventually agreed to the formation of an election government under the sitting Chief Justice of the country in February this year. This led to the polls held last week and  the results are now out. With the results of nearly all constituencies for the FPTP system out and the counting for the proportionate system ongoing, the NC and UML have emerged as clear winners with the Maoists a very distant third.The Terai-based regional parties which had come a very impressive fourth in the first CA and have suffered a series of splits since have been limited to within 5% of total FPTP seats.

As events evolve, the Maoists' rather misplaced belief that they had permanently won the hearts and minds of the people has now come crashing with the poll results. This has also raised doubts about the legitimacy of their agenda as the NC and UML are vocally opposed to federating the country on the basis of a single identity as demanded by the Maoists, the regional parties in Terai and a host of parties and organizations representing the different ethnic groups.

Given the emerging political order in Kathmandu after these polls, it is now nearly impossible for the Maoists and the regional parties to have their way in the vital question of state restructuring. They can now only regret for squandering a very strong mandate which they had in the first CA.

This brings the former rebels to an insurmountably difficult position: their only justification for the decade long bloodshed was that, beside making Nepal a republic, the new constitution would be drafted in their terms with central focus on state restructuring based on ethnicity (please note that they had veered towards the ethnicity issue during the conflict years after the class issue was unable to attract enough fighters and supporters).

The task of making Nepal a republic is already completed but when they were waiting for a renewal of people's verdict attesting their agenda on much anticipated and contentious issue of state restructuring through a resounding electoral success, just the opposite has happened.

So what explains the rout of the ex-rebels? Amid a cacophonous rebuttal and mockery of the formerly largest party in streets and social media in Nepal, people are increasingly seeking the answer to this question. As I have consistently argued, there are three major reasons for the comprehensive defeat of the Maoist party in these polls.

First is their callousness and adventurism shown during the tenure of the first CA. Through an unscrupulous combination of myopia and brinkmanship, they alienated, even tried to marginalize-- rather unsuccessfully-- the NC and UML after their victory in the first CA. Refusal to make the undisputed leader of the 2006 movement, Girija Prasad Koirala, the then president of Nepali Congress, the president of the country was the beginning of an enduring dispute with a series of squabbles down the line culminating in a very unfortunate polarization in the country at a moment when consensus was a must.

The result was an endless race of making and breaking the governments in Kathmandu while the process of constitution-writing was relegated to second priority. In the final move of brinkmanship that has now proved to be the most devastating for the party, the Maoist leadership opted for a collapse of the CA in 2012 when most of the constitution was ready rather than reaching out to the NC-UML to a compromise solution in the final hours.

Second, while advancing the issue of inclusion and federalism, their shrill demand of federalizing the country based on single identity (read it caste in case of most proposed provinces) earned them bitter enemies among a large section of population. The state of near-confrontation between those for and against such a federalizing process was about to turn much nastier around the collapse of the first CA.

Third and most unfortunate reason for their bleak performance was their track record of terrible governance while in power. As such, the old parties like NC and UML are not particularly known for good governance and clean image of their leaders in Nepal; rather their corrupt practices during the nineties perpetuating poverty in Nepal had formed the major premise on which the Maoists had started the 'People's War' in 1996. But once the latter were in power, all the corrupt activities of NC and UML leaders were dwarfed.

More unfortunately for the people, the nature itself of the corrupt practices changed drastically as the newly corrupt also developed parallel tools of evading the potential grip of investigative agencies. Though the Maoists were not the only beneficiary of this latest binge of  misgovernance, many saw their outright contempt to the 'bourgeoisie' ways of maintaining accountability as the root cause of it.

So how was it that the apparently visionary leadership of the Maoist party was unaware of such an adverse situation? Here is my inference. The chairman of the Maoists, Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda, clearly had Vladimir Putin in mind as his role model all these years: why not accept the 'bourgeoisie' democracy if it lets you rule the country for as long as you wish? A system with periodic elections minus accountability best suited the mode of governance that the ex-rebels practiced.

Prachanda's persona was so bloated and his projection by the party as the future executive president of Nepal was so forceful that an aura of invincibility gripped him and he jovially traveled across the country in chartered helicopters before the polls. There were plenty telltale signs of their imminent defeat but they chose to ignore them as it was either way too late or impossible to rectify all the wrongdoings of the past.
As things stand, Prachanda's dream of eternally ruling Nepal using the tool of multiparty democracy stands demolished to its core. Like a spy thriller, in this complex drama in which he was supposed to be 'utilizing' other political powers to achieve his political goals, people have actually utilized the first CA elections to thoroughly disarm the Maoist party and now badly repudiated the model of governance that Prachanda effectively proposed for the future.

This brings us to the question: what happens next? Having seen well the consequences of alienating the smaller political powers over the past six years, NC and UML are unlikely to attempt politically bulldozing the already downsized Maoists. As is likely, the Maoists too will, rather reluctantly, reciprocate to the reconciliatory moves of the rivals. In that case, the atmosphere will become perfectly conducive to drafting a constitution that avoids an extremist position on any issue.

Even with NC and UML at helm, there is no way the issues of inclusion and federalism can now be sidelined. But with these elections proving that the voter base of the large parties cut well across the boundaries of ethnicity, region, caste, religion and so on, the issues should be much less polarizing this time around. With proper and well-thought maneuverings of all the stakeholders, the tricky issue of state restructuring can thus be potentially sorted out at a relatively little risk of turmoil and confrontation.

And for the Maoists, it would be best to abandon the 'Putin' model and wholeheartedly accept the competitive democracy. After all, they are not alone in losing the supposedly secure throne in South Asia: PPP in Pakistan is already in opposition and the Congress in India and Awami League in Bangladesh are awaiting an unpleasant verdict of the people at the end of their tenures. Corrupt officials are now inviting the wrath of Xi Jinping administration even in authoritarian China.

An impressive comeback of NC and UML in these elections after the apparently crippling losses of 2008 here at home should also be a lesson to them and if constitution is drafted in time, the parliamentary elections may be just round the corner. Only thing is they should seriously repent for the past mistakes and believe in their deeds rather than words: a hut in the ground is ways more valuable than a castle in the air. 

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