Poles apart

  • Amid continuing political polarisation, the only way out of the current impasse is for both ruling and opposition parties to sit for negotiations
Poles apart

Jan 26, 2015-

Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006, this is the fourth time that Nepali politics has become greatly polarised. In 2009, when Prachanda dismissed then army chief Rookmangud Katawal and President Ram Baran Yadav overturned the decision, the political process became highly fragmented. It took nearly three years for the parties to bridge the gap and rebuild an environment of trust, which were, and still are, key to putting a conclusive end to the peace and constitution process. The polarisation of 2009 was a major reason behind the sluggish progress of the first Constituent Assembly (CA) in constitution drafting.

Again, in 2012, the dissolution of the CA led to pervasive mistrust. But key stakeholders managed to come together and agreed to form a chief justice-led interim government for the purposes of holding an election to a second CA. They also attempted to bring the dissident CPN-Maoist into the election fold, but this initiative failed. Again, after the results of the second CA election were made public, parties were polarised, with the UCPN (Maoist) boycotting the election outcome. However, this period too passed over quickly and misunderstandings were resolved.

Two sides to argue

Now, politics is once against greatly divided, placing the constitution-drafting process at risk. The ruling parties—Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML along with some fringe parties—are in one bloc while the opposition—UCPN (Maoist) and Madhes-based parties—are on the opposite end. The decision to go ahead with the formation of a Questionnaire Committee by CA Chairman Subhas Nembang on Sunday, despite protests from the opposition, has led to a souring of relations. The opposition parties have claimed that the chairman made a “historic blunder” while ruling parties claim that the decision has set the stalled constitution-drafting process in motion. In any case, as the opposition has refused to be a part of the Committee, there is little doubt that it will be able to work effectively.

However, the formation of a Questionnaire Committee is only a technical matter. The ruling parties should refrain from seeing this as a victory over the opposition while the opposition too should not feel as if it has lost the CA battle. For the ruling parties, it was necessary to form this committee to send a message to the people that though they failed to draft a new constitution on January 22, a formal process had at least begun. The opposition, too, had to protest this move as they fear it could lead to a majority vote.

Agreements reached

But both ruling and opposition parties do not have any alternative to consensual politics. There is sufficient time available for parties to forge consensus on key contentious issues of the new constitution. Both ruling and opposition party leaders claim that they had almost reached consensus on January 21 and 22 on most outstanding issues, except for federalism.

On form of government, the Maoists had agreed to adopt a reformed parliamentary system expressing their note of dissent while the Madhes-based parties had already agreed to it. On the electoral system, the ruling parties had accepted a mixed model and that there should be give and take to finalise the percentage for both First-Past-the-Post and Proportional Representation. Similarly, all parties have agreed to set up both the Supreme Court and a Constitutional Court in the judiciary.

Even on federalism, leaders claim that they are closing the gap. The opposition parties have given up their demand for single identity federalism and concerning the dispute related to five districts—Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari, Kailali, and Kanchanpur—various alternatives have been floated at cross-party meetings. Ruling parties need to address the issue of identity, but this also does not mean that they should accept ethnic federalism. If parties agree to multiple identity-based federalism and multiple provinces in the Madhes, federalism too will be a done deal. All parties have already announced that there could be consensus on six- or seven-province models and provincial parliaments could later pick the names.

The ruling parties do command a close two-thirds majority in the CA, which they can marshal to endorse a new constitution, just like with the formation of the Questionnaire Committee. But this is simply the legal and constitutional perspective; ruling parties should think more about the durability of the new constitution.

Talking solutions

Therefore, ruling parties need to sit for renewed talks with the opposition, adopting flexibility on contentious issues. The opposition too should not impose any pre-condition for talks. Though their numbers have reduced in the CA, both Maoist and Madhes-based parties are key stakeholders of Nepal’s constitution process and it is vital that they be accommodated for the country’s stability and long-term progress. So an immediate return to dialogue would be beneficial for both sides.

The opposition UCPN (Maoist) and Madhes-based parties need to stay responsible. True, the ruling parties should refrain from provoking them but they too, need to maintain maximum restraint and flexible positions. Maoist leader Narayan Kaji Shrestha rightly pointed out this week that the party should be serious about preserving historic achievements such as republicanism, secularism, and inclusion. Since these are the collective achievement of all major political forces, any further polarisation risks providing ground for extremist forces to challenge these progressive gains. The opposition front will not benefit from protests inside or outside the CA, only extremist forces will gain.

Even if the process has been started by the ruling parties, it will take at least four-five months to promulgate a new constitution. If NC-UML continue to move ahead without reaching out to the opposition, there will definitely be complications. If the opposition parties walk out of the CA, there will be a crisis of legitimacy. So, the first priority of ruling party is to bring the opposition parties back to the negotiating table.

A package deal on a national unity government, a new deadline for statute promulgation, flexibility on key contentious issues, and post-constitution power sharing should be the priority of cross-party talks. In the past, power sharing had often emerged as an obstacle to constitution drafting, but this issue has not been properly addressed yet. It is obvious that UML Chairman KP Oli wants to secure the prime minister’s post after promulgation of the constitution. PM Sushil Koirala, UML leader Jhala Nath Khanal and Prachanda are also worried about their position after the constitution. Baburam Bhattarai, Madhav Kumar Nepal, and Sher Bahadur Deuba all desire to lead their respective parties. Naturally, the Madhesi parties too seek a share in the post-constitution government.

The only way out of the current polarisation is for both ruling and opposition parties to return to negotiations. The ruling parties need to prioritise consensus over a majority vote while the opposition must focus on negotiations over street protests. All the parties need to keep in mind that the drafting of a constitution will be the conclusion of a remarkable peace process that has set examples for the rest of the world.

Bhattarai is with the political desk at the Post

Published: 27-01-2015 09:02

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