Deepening crisis: Political impasse in Nepal

Even after four years wait for the newly elected Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution, Nepal’s squabbling political parties have not been able to agree on the shape of a Constitution or even what the future of this small Himalayan nation would be.

The situation in Nepal becomes more obscure with the elections which were scheduled on November 22 being postponed due to refusal of political parties to participate unless current Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai resigns.

President Ram Baran Yadav, however, on November 29, gave seven more days for political parties to reach a deal on a government of national unity. The deadline was extended after a meeting between the President and the top leaders of major political forces, who urged for such an extension.

In the event of the deepening political crisis, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Department of India, Dr Karan Singh was sent to Nepal in November end, to call on the President and the Prime Minister and also senior leaders of other political parties to help Nepal break the political impasse.

Nepal’s politics have been plagued with instability and uncertainty ever since hopes were raised for a new Constitution being drafted by a newly elected Constituent Assembly after the end of a decade-long Maoist insurgency.

The four major political parties in Nepal - the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), and United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) have deep differences and are prone to infighting.

Ram Baran Yadav was asked to use his special Presidential powers to remove the Prime Minister. But he refused to take such a drastic step unless there was a consensus.

His decision is appropriate as any adventurism on the President’s part would be unconstitutional and would only intensify the differences among the political parties.

Impending problems

The main problem in Nepal is the inability of the political parties to engage in consensus politics. The new constitution could not be framed due to differences among political parties on whether the country should be divided into a number of small states along ethnic lines so that some of the larger minority groups become politically empowered.

Maoists and many small ethnic parties support this proposal. They feel the ethnic minorities that have been marginalized for decades should be given representation, which would aid in their progress.

But the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party, who represent the traditional ruling elite, insist that federalism based on ethnic lines would only lead to destruction of the country’s unity.

Thus, a sharp social polarization has appeared between the parties that demand federalism based on identity and those that feel they will lose out in the new system.

What dominates any discussion on solving the constitutional deadlock is how the ambitions of the various parties would be accommodated in governing the country. This should have been a part of the discussion, definitely not the main issue.

Further, the differences within the political parties are also on the rise. The Maoist-headed caretaker government is distrusted by the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party.

Also, the Maoists have split, with Mohan Vaidya “Kiran” leading the splinter faction. He even presented 70 demands and threatened to start an insurgency if the demands were not met.

Over 500 activists quit the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) accusing it of being anti-federal. They are being led by Ashok Rai and have made clear their intention of forming a new party and aligning with other marginalized groups.

Nepal’s political leaders are also displaying marked immaturity with regard to the situation. The top three leaders of the NC are vying to become the next Prime Minister of Nepal, instead of making the resolution of the political and constitutional deadlock a priority.

The parties sometimes have not been able to explain to the people their proposal for federalism and in some instances have not listened to their own members.

Another factor that paralyses Baburam Bhattarai’s interim government is the increasingly weakened governmental institutions in Nepal. The absence of a legislature means that the Prime Minister cannot pass any law and is therefore dependent on President Ram Baran Yadav.

The Constituent Assembly was elected in 2008 and its two year term was repeatedly extended after it failed to draft a new Constitution. Its final tem ended in May, after the parties could not agree on further extension, leaving Nepal without a legislature.

Further, the absence of a legislature could worsen tensions between parties. The constitutional ambiguity could also pose a challenge to relations between the Prime Minister and the President, and the executive and the judiciary.

Also, the legitimacy of the interim government has been challenged by opposition leaders like Arjun Narasingha, of the Nepali Congress Party, who called the interim government illegitimate.

Royalists have also questioned the legality of interim government and have even hinted at bringing back the monarchy. In fact, the US is also favoring the return of monarchy in Nepal, fearing the continuation of the political deadlock might lead to a Maoist takeover with China’s support.

The way ahead

The postponement of the November elections is bad news, forecasting that the impasse may continue for a considerable period. Here, the central issue would be identity based politics and ways to address it.

Ever since 2005, India has been supporting the establishment in Nepal, be it brokering the 12-point understanding between the Maoists and Nepal’s other political parties that enabled the rebels to emerge from the underground or convincing the then monarch King Gyanendra to step down.

Nepal and India share historical, religious and cultural ties. India has consistently supported the Maoist-led government which was also the right thing to do, being a responsible big power in the region.

Even Maoist chairman, Prachanda publicly acknowledged India’s role in Nepal’s political transformation - from the 12-point agreement, to the Constituent Assembly elections, to the declaration of republic and the progress in the peace process.

But Nepal’s great opportunity by way of a peace process, after the Maoist insurgency, has been stalled. The irresponsible and immature behavior of the political parties involved in short-term power gain led the country straight into a political deadlock.  
In November, there was a standoff between the government and the opposition over the annual budget that threatened essential services and resulted in Nepal government postponing the budget announcement.

The emergency budget announced by the interim government in July, ran out in mid November. This has already hampered development projects and the salaries of government employees, soldiers and teachers have been delayed.

The political parties in Nepal need to come to a consensus on four inter-related issues-how to preserve the work done by the Constituent Assembly, deciding on new election dates, the kind of election system  and the nature of the government that would lead the country.

The question of leadership remains the most debated one, with both the Maoist and the NC claiming the top position.

But the more important question now is about the future of government as opposition parties are demanding resignation of the Prime Minister as a pre-condition for new elections. President Ram Baran Yadav is optimistic that the political parties will come to a consensus on forming a unity government in the next five days.

All eyes will be set on the outcome of the inter-party talks that would decide the future of Nepal’s government, otherwise the political impasse is sure to squander away all the momentum achieved during the peace process and jeopardize the country’s future as a democratic republic.