The Growing Political Divide

Written by Dr. Moonis Ahmar  •  Region  •  June 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Although Nepal has become a democratic country, its internal political crisis and indecision to hold elections places it in jeopardy in terms of political stability.

Nepal is standing at a political crossroad, following years of political crisis, instability and popular discontent. Elections for the constituent assembly, which were scheduled several times, had to be postponed because of a lack of consensus among Nepal’s major political parties. As a result, Nepal, in the post-monarchical period, has democratized its institutions to provide good governance to its people and is currently facing serious political upheaval in view of deep rooted political and ethnic divide in the country.

Sandwiched between the two giants, China and India, and with a population of 26 million, Nepal has nearly 100 ethnic groups and castes. The violent civil war that lasted from 1996-2006 between the Maoists and the security forces loyal to the monarchy killed more than 13,000 people. In November 2006, the Nepalese government and the Maoists signed a comprehensive peace accord to deal with issues emanating after the demise of monarchy.

The abolishment of monarchy by the Nepalese Constituent Assembly in May 2008 and the assumption of power by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) in April 2008 transformed the political landscape of Nepal. For nearly a year, CPN-M remained in power under the premiership of Puspa Kamal Dahal also known as ‘Prachanda.’ On May 4, 2009, Prachanda resigned from his post after developing differences with the President over the sacking of the Army chief. The split in CPN-M and the subsequent political crisis over holding elections for the constituent assembly further galvanized political schism in the country with no political party in a position to provide a viable road map for a smooth democratic process. The first democratic elections in Nepal for a constituent assembly were held on April 10, 2008 in which the CPN-M emerged as the single largest party followed by the Nepali Congress Party and Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) respectively. Unfortunately, the assembly failed to formulate a constitution and elections to elect a new constituent assembly were postponed twice.

Four major factors are widening the political divide in Nepal.  First is the growing identity crisis in Nepal along ethnic lines as there are around 100 ethnic groups and sub-groups in Nepal. A major ethnic flash point in Nepal is the country’s southern region bordering India, called Terai, where the Madeshi people resent the domination of Brahmins and those representing ‘hill’ districts. Second, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), a breakaway faction of United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), has refused to register as a party with the Nepali Election Commission arguing that it cannot contest in the elections under prevailing conditions. CPN-M has a sizeable following and its boycott from the elections may further deepen Nepal’s political predicament. Third, the growing Hindu extremism in Nepal, influenced by Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has resulted in attacks on the Muslim community, which comprises 4% of the total population. Despite being a predominantly Hindu state, Nepal for centuries followed moderate and tolerant values. Fourth, the division of Nepal along caste lines with the upper caste (Brahims) still holding the reins of power contributes to the deepening social divide within the country.

Following the fall of the monarchy, the non-Brahman people, who constitute the majority in Nepal, demanded an end to centuries of caste-based exploitation. Interestingly, the Maoists, who are waging the struggle for a classless society in Nepal, are in a paradoxical situation; they are struggling for a caste free Nepal but their leadership is primarily from the Braham caste. It is this type of a dichotomy which has put a question mark as far as the Maoists struggle for a people’s rule is concerned.

According to sources, Nepal’s Election Commission has registered 135 political parties for the election of a new Constituent Assembly which is overdue and is expected to take place in the near future. Out of these 135 political parties, 76 are new and had not participated in the 2008 constituent assembly elections. In the 2008 elections of constituent assembly, however, 84 parties had applied for registration but only 74 parties were registered, 54 parties took part in the 2008 elections and 25 were elected into the constituent assembly. As per the election laws, parties gaining 1% of the total cast votes would get a seat in the constituent assembly under the proportional representation system. The reason for continued delays in holding elections for the constituent assembly is twofold. First, Nepal is passing through a critical and transitory phase because of centuries of monarchical rule and the absence of a viable democratic process. Basic issues that have surfaced include the question of who should be allowed to contest elections; whether there should be a caretaker government to supervise elections and the process of electing a new prime minister.

Second is the external factor hindering Nepal’s political process. The Maoists have accused New Delhi of pursuing an anti-Maoist approach because of its fear that Chinese influence in Nepal may surge in case the Maoists assume power. Since long, Nepal faces the problem of Sino-Indian ambitions to bring the landlocked Himalayan country under New Delhi’s influence. India’s tilt in favor of Nepali Congress Party is considered a clear evidence of India’s age-old political ambitions in Nepal. Furthermore, many Nepali circles lament that their country has enormous water resources but is facing serious energy shortfalls because of New Delhi’s lack of support to generate electricity from hydel power plants. Nepal has the potential to generate around 50,000 megawatts of electricity from its water resources but is unable to achieve its targets because of lack of funds and non-cooperation from its powerful southern neighbor.

Since 1996, Nepal’s political elite has failed to forge a consensus on holding general elections, formulating a constitution, maintaining the rule of law, and running the affairs of the government in a productive fashion. Four major political parties of Nepal, the Nepali Congress Party, Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), and Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum Democratic, are unable to hold mutual consultation to break the political impasse as far as holding elections for constituent assembly are concerned. Since Nepal lacks the experience of a functional democracy, its civil society is not that assertive. Furthermore, the lack of ownership for the country and its major unresolved issues is evident among the major stakeholders, both political and non-political.

In order to pull Nepal out of its political quandary, there is an urgent need to pursue a ‘multi-stakeholder’ approach in which political parties, the Election Commission, the President, civil society groups and the military need to sit together and reach a consensus to bring Nepal out of its years of political impasse. 

Dr. Moonis Ahmar is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi and Director, Program on Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution.

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