Steep political odds face mountainous Nepal
Parties agree on new interim government, but doubts persist whether it will result in ending political crisis.
Kathmandu, Nepal – Nepal’s political parties, which have been unable to agree even on a regular annual budget, have shown unusual alacrity in accepting a solution to the country’s debilitating political crisis.
More than six years after a 10-year-old insurgency ended with the abolition of a 240-year-old monarchy, the landlocked country with the world’s highest mountain peak is struggling to institutionalise democracy. The process of writing a new constitution has floundered and long overdue elections have been delayed.
On Tuesday, the parties notorious for endless bickerings agreed to a non-political interim government under the incumbent chief justice of the Supreme Court to hold election in the first week of June this year, the major political forces have opened themselves to withering criticism from many quarters.
Unfazed, the top party leaders have marched on, arguing that this is the only way forward.
Meanwhile, the feasbility of the interim election government, which would be headed by Chief Justice of Nepal’s Supreme Court Khil Raj Regmi, is far from certain.
According to newspaper accounts, Regmi has told leaders of major political parties that he would not head the interim government unless some of the “humiliating” conditions set forth by them are addressed.
The chief justice is referring to the proposed high-level political mechanism to “assist” and “oversee” the interim government until June 5, the day the election to the new Constituent Assembly cum Parliament is to be held. If the interim government failed to hold the election by the first week of June, it would be dissolved.
Regmi is also unhappy that the parties have decided to nominate members to the cabinet he is to lead, a prerogative, he feels, should be left to the head of the government.
Responding to Regmi’s reservations, the top leaders agreed to change the wording of nine-point deal hammered out by representatives of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), the Nepali Congress, CPN (Unified Marxist-Leninist, CPN-UML) and Madhesi Morcha, a front of five small parties from the Terai-Madhes region.
Regmi is not alone in his reservations.
“The chief justice should not have accepted the proposal…this would mean the same person heading both the judiciary and executive branches – and this is ethically wrong.”
– Daman Nath Dhungana, former parliament speaker
The idea of having an election-conducting interim government under the country’s sitting chief justice has seen sharp reactions, with politicians and members of the legal community and civil society taking sides for or against it. In a move against it, some of the smaller political parties have handed over a memorandum to President Dr Ram Baran Yadav.
Those favouring the solution have pointed out that since the political parties have been unable to agree on any solution until now, this is the most viable option to ensure an election. Those against it cite the principle of separation of powers, pointing out the “risks” of having the same person head both the executive and judicial branches of the government.
“The proposal should be seen in context,” said former head of the Constitutional Committee in the now dissolved Constituent Assembly Nilambar Acharya. “We have a situation where the political parties have not been able to agree on interim government even nine months after the Constituent Assembly got dissolved, and the caretaker prime minister failed to hold the elections twice.”
The best way forward, according to Acharya, is holding the election, which is “technically possible to hold in the first week of June but it ultimately depends on the will and co-operation from the political parties”.
His views are far from universal.
“The chief justice should not have accepted the proposal to make him the head of the interim government,” Daman Nath Dhungana, the former speaker of parliament and a member of civil society said. “This would mean the same person heading both the judiciary and executive branches – this is ethically wrong.”
Dr Shekhar Koirala, a Central Working Committee (CWC) member of the Nepali Congress, agreed. “Separation of powers is a must in any functioning democracy, and more so in a fragile democracy like Nepal’s,” he said.
Emphasising the need for political leadership, Koirala suggested bringing in independent candidates who have political background and are not affiliated to any political party. “Former Speaker of Parliament, Daman Nath Dhungana and others like him are better options.”
Even Ram Karki, a Maoist CWC member who is considered close to Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, said a politician was a better option than a non-elected technocratic government under the chief justice. “Why can’t we have big leaders from smaller parties head the government?” asked Karki.
However, Karki, former head of the Maoist’s Foreign Department, conceded that if the Chief Justice-led government was the only option that the leadership could agree on, then “so be it”.
When Nepalis elected the Constituent Assembly (CA) in 2008 to draft a constitution after a 10 year civil war ended in 2006 to oust the 250-year old monarchy, there was all-round euphoria.
However, the prolonged instability in post-war Nepal since 2006 has frustrated many. The transition has continued longer than necessary in a country where roughly 25 percent of its 27 million people still struggle to survive on a little more than a dollar a day.
The CA, which had a two-year term to write the constitution, has failed to do so, despite giving itself four extensions that spanned two years. The CA was dissolved minutes before it expired in late May of last year by Bhattarai.
The political impasse has gotten worse ever since.
The subject of citizenship is very emotive in the Terai – the southern part of the country that borders India – where many feel they have been systematically been denied citizenship by the state.
When he dissolved the CA, Bhattarai announced election for November 22, 2012 – a task he failed to accomplish when opposition parties put their foot down, saying they were not consulted.
In November, Bhattarai issued another call for an election in the Nepali month of Baisakh – mid-April to mid-May 2013 – without mentioning any specific date.
When even that election – which Bhattarai again announced without consulting opposition groups – looked uncertain, the Prime Minister blamed the two principal opposition parties, the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML.
Even if the parties can hammer out their issues and succeed in convincing Chief Justice Regmi to head the interim government, it seems unlikely that an election will be held in June of this year.
There are also logistical problems involving the demarcation of election constituencies, and the distribution of citizenship cards that could still stall any progress.
However, both Dhungana and Koirala said that the election-related matters need to be resolved now. The subject of citizenship is very emotive in the Terai – the southern part of the country that borders India – where many feel they have been systematically denied citizenship by the state.
The government-proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that would take up war-era crimes has been opposed by nearly all those outside the government, including political parties, civil society, national and international human rights community, and the European Union.
While the Maoists sees this as an effective transitional justice mechanism, opponents view the measure as an attempt to give blanket amnesty to even those accused of gross abuses during the decade-long war, during which over 16,000 people were killed.
But almost everyone agrees that election need to be held, and the sooner the better. For the election to be held in June or even in November 2013, the parties have their work cut out. There are lots of differences to be bridged and daunting odds to be overcome.
Only the coming days will show whether they succeed in their mission.