Time’s too short to amend the constitution before the polls

  • Interview with Krishna Khanal

Jun 12, 2017-While the second phase of local elections are scheduled for June 28, Nepal still remains mired in political uncertainty, with an agreement between the government and the Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N) proving elusive. Shashwat Acharya and Supriya Gurung spoke to constitutional expert and political commentator Krishna Khanal about the necessity of local elections and challenges that four-time Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba will have to overcome in order to hold the second phase of local elections, including negotiations with the RJP-N and dealing with the CPN-UML’s purported stance of ‘nationalism’.  

What are the significance and implications of the local level elections?

That the first phase of local elections took place indicates that the government is coming back on track now and that we have a more positive political environment. Citizens were understandably cynical that local level elections would not be held by the announced date, but the success of the first phase has instilled faith in the system.

Of course, the elections could have been better thought out. The electoral process should be formulated in a way that is convenient to the electorates, not the political parties and the Election Commission (EC). This was not the case in the first phase. The ballot paper was huge; there should have been two ballots, one for the positions of the mayor and deputy mayor, and the other for the remaining positions. This was how it was in the 1997 local polls.

There still seem to be considerable challenges in holding the second phase of local polls on June 28.How should the government deal with them?

There isn’t much time to deal with the political challenges presented by the RJP-N. The upcoming monsoon also has to be factored in. In case of heavy rains, there is a chance that parts of the Tarai could be flooded, impeding the movement of the electorates.

In the event that elections cannot be held on June 28 due to weather-related reasons, the government should make preparations to hold them on a nearby date. If the second phase isn’t conducted in Asar (mid-July), it will be very difficult to hold the remaining elections by January 2018, as stipulated by the constitution.

Nepal does not currently have the managerial and human resource capacity to coordinate all three elections at the same time. Perhaps two—general and provincial—could be conducted simultaneously, but not all three.

What are your views on the new local level structuring?

I am afraid the government will be too bureaucratic and centrally controlled under the new set-up. Earlier, we had over 4,000 local bodies, and now we have only 744. This means that the area under the new local units is much larger, and people’s connections to the local government will be much reduced. In the first phase, the electorates didn’t know the candidates on a personal level; instead, they cast their votes on party lines.

So with this setup, there will be bureaucratic and party empowerment, but not citizen empowerment. The government may be pushing the narrative that the state will be more accessible to citizens now, but the fact is that taller walls are being built between the government and the people.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal recently left office. How did you assess his second tenure as prime minister?

He made some positive strides and kept his word on some of his commitments. He had made two notable agreements, the first with the Nepali Congress (NC) to step down from the post of prime minister and let Sher Bahadur Deuba take over after the local polls, and the second with the Madhes-centric parties to amend the constitution. While he kept his word on the first, he couldn’t fulfil the second. This was not for lack of trying; he did try to bring the Madhes-based parties on board. Of course, some cynics are of the view that Deuba, Dahal and Oli have come to an agreement behind closed doors to hold off on amending the constitution until after the local level elections are held.

What should Prime Minister Deuba do to unlock the current stalemate?

No one is expecting anything new from him. He will continue Dahal’s work and if he can honestly accomplish it, his term will be a success. The main challenge in front of him is to hold the second phase of local elections, for which he has to bring the Madhes-centric parties on board. Without their participation, the elections will not be fully legitimate.

There have been positive developments in this regard, as certain parties are leaning towards participating in the second phase. For example, Bijay Kumar Gachhadar-led Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Loktantrik and Upendra Yadav-led Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum-Nepal (SSF-N) have agreed to take part in the elections. However, the RJP-N is still maintaining that it will not participate in the second phase until its demands are met. It is in a fix; it cannot completely boycott the elections, but it cannot wholeheartedly take part in them either.

Deuba must work towards creating an environment where all Madhes-centric parties can participate in the second phase. If the RJP-N decides to boycott the elections and if protests are staged in the Tarai, the polls will be disrupted.

How do you look at the demands of the Madhes-based parties?

Some of the grievances expressed by the Madhes-centric parties are genuine. When the constitution was promulgated, the NC, the CPN (Maoist Centre) and the CPN-UML had assured the Madhes-based parties that the constitution would be amended to address their demands. Their assurances are on record. Given that this commitment was not kept, the Madhesi agitation is understandable. But there may not be enough time now to amend the constitution before the second phase.

The amendment could be pushed through Parliament quick enough, but the problem is that every word and sentence in the amended text requires great forethought and consideration. It is not something to be taken lightly and done in haste.

That being said, it is essential to address the grievances of all sections of the population. The Khas-Arya, the Madhesis and the Janajatis make up the three broad ethnic clusters of the country, although there is considerable diversity within each. Addressing the demands of the Madhesis and the Janajatis does not mean that we are going against nationalism. The government has to take all ethnicities into confidence and deal with their demands in order to create long-term political stability in the country. Failure to do so will be a source of a perennial problem.

How do you view India’s involvement in Nepali politics, particularly with regard to the Madhesi issue?

India’s involvement in Nepali politics is nothing new. India has been a decisive factor in major political changes in Nepal, from the People’s Movement in 1990 to the signing of the 12-point agreement in 2005. But India’s approach has been more blunt and forceful than, say, China’s. It’s as if India is always there to advise us, regardless of whether advice is solicited or not.

The blunt nature of India’s involvement was made clear by the unofficial blockade it imposed in 2015 following the constitution’s promulgation. Back then, Nepalis blamed India for the state of crisis; however, they did not hold the Nepal government accountable for not being able to bargain with India to reach an agreement. Neither the then prime minister KP Oli nor any of the other larger parties in Parliament were able to negotiate successfully with India.

How could the obstacle presented by the CPN-UML be addressed?

Dahal and Deuba have one weakness. They should have been able to tell the UML point blank that it should cease its opposition in regard to the Madhesis demands. The UML might claim that it is assuming a stance of nationalism by hindering efforts to bring the Madhes parties on board, but they are obstructing the entire governance system because of their purported stance. This is more redolent of fascism than nationalism.

Dahal and Deuba have been cowed by the fact that the UML is the second largest party in Parliament. If they had said point blank  that the amendment to the constitution had to happen, then the CPN-UML would have been in a bind. It is not enough for the PM to say that the elections need to happen; the government has  to work towards creating a conducive environment for elections to take place with full participation of various parties. But Deuba does not have time for such statements now. He has lost that ground.

Deuba will have to find a way to bring the RJP-N on board; otherwise the elections will be stuck. If elections take place in one half of the country and not in the other half, then that will pose a real danger to national unity. Elections are integral to lend functional legitimacy to the constitution.

Published: 12-06-2017 08:11

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