So far, the most noticeable aspect of the opposition of Nepali Congress and CPN-UML to PM Baburam Bhattarai’s move to dissolve the four-year-old Constituent Assembly (although constitutional experts will argue that by the time of his announcement, the CA had dissolved by itself) has been what they have held back. Post CA termination, both NC and UML leaders started clamoring for Bhattarai to step down to make room for the formation of a national consensus government. But neither has expressed its outright opposition to Bhattarai’s announcement of election on Nov 22, in less than six months’ time.
This is a deliberate strategy. NC and UML believe that in the last four years of open politics, the Maoists have been thoroughly discredited as a ‘revolutionary force’. Indeed, since their entry into mainstream politics, the Maoists have significantly watered down this incendiary agenda, the establishment faction certainly has; and are, as time passes, getting better at the time-tested tactics of parliamentary negotiation politics. Given this situation, NC and UML believe they have a very good chance of cutting off a huge chunk of Maoist electoral gains from the last CA polls.
The Maoists, on the other end, believe that last four years have done even more harm to the credibility of traditional parliamentary parties. Their hope is that people have been watching how NC and UML have been constantly placing obstacles in implementing revolutionary Maoist agendas like radical land reform and overhaul of the old parliamentary politics, even while the Maoists emerged as by far the biggest force in the last CA polls. The Madhes-based parties also seem confident that their final push for the two provinces in Tarai has gone down well with the broader Madhesi constituency.
Maoist Chairman Dahal has made it clear that the current governing coalition will continue until the election of the scheduled CA polls in November, unless there is ‘consensus’ on another government, which is unlikely as the ruling coalition still seems to enjoy the support of the majority of the political parties represented in the dissolved CA. The ploy is clear: To maximize electoral gains from the head of the government. During the last CA polls, there were reports of widespread vote rigging by the Maoists, although they might have won in most places any way. It is hard to believe that they will not try to cash in on their advantageous position in the next CA polls, whenever it takes place.
This is the reason NC and UML have been insisting that Bhattarai make way, apparently for someone from among the two parties. Spooked by the Maoists’ unexpectedly good showing during the last polls, the old duopoly is determined to cut the Maoists down to size.
Through their principled opposition to ethnicity-based federalism, the two parties will again look to pitch themselves as the chief guardians of Bahun-Chhetri interests. When canvassing for the next polls, the two parties are also likely to play up their effort to ‘safeguard’ the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty by standing firm against ‘divisive’ forces.
As the arduous route to the last CA polls in 2008 made clear, the road to the scheduled polls won’t be easy either, although the Election Commission has said it is up for it. The vast resources in terms of funding, manpower and technical expertise won’t be as easy to come by as well, as the international donors are likely to more reservations about the electoral project after seeing the four long years of the old CA come to nothing. It will have plenty of other things to reckon to with, most importantly the tenuous security situation in the country. There are many elements waiting in the wings to create trouble ahead of the polls. These include not only the radical groups that aim to fish in the muddy waters of transitional politics but also those forces that have all along opposed federalism. Given the acrimonious debate in the lead up to the May 27 deadline and how it sparked violent protests right through the country, the proponents of unitary state will make every effort to impress that the unitary set up is still the best suited for the country.
Speaking at a radio program, RJP (Nepal) President Kamal Thapa said the party would contest the CA’s decision to abolish monarchy, dismantle the unitary state and its declaration of the country as a secular state. His argument is that since the CA was dismissed without completing its assigned duty, all its important decision should be rendered null and void as well. These demands, the likes of Thapa hope, will help revive their grassroots support even if they might fall short of a robust legal argument. Voices like Thapa’s would find considerable traction among the people who feel betrayed by the mainstream parties in the last four years. Moreover, although the constituency for monarchy has certainly shrunk, opinion polls hint that more than a third of the population might still be willing to give the monarchy benefit of the doubt.
But the biggest danger to the Nepali state might be history. If we compare constitution making to a scalable project, which basically means it involves more inputs in ‘ideas’ than ‘labor’ (an apt comparison given that the grunt work on constitution, we were told, had been completed in the first two years of the dissolved CA), we come to a sobering conclusion. Here is an example from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestselling The Black Swan: “Let’s say a project is to be completed in 79 days…On the 79th day if the project is not finished, it will be expected to take another 25 days to complete. But on the 90th day, if the project is still not completed, it should have about 58 days to go…On the 119th, it should have an extra 149 days. On day 600, if the project is not done, you will be expected to need an extra 1,590 days….the longer you wait, the longer you will be expected to wait.”
That’s the catchphrase: The longer you wait, the longer you will be expected to wait. Could it be that the federal agenda in Nepal is so complicated that there never will be a win-win situation for all segments of the population? If the last four years weren’t enough, what is the guarantee that the next four years will be more fruitful (provisions in the interim constitution demand that the new CA has the same strength and tenure as the last one)?
Given a large number of permutations and combinations that are possible in the current political vacuum, it is impossible to foresee how things will play out even a month down the road, leave alone in six months or a year. Perhaps the biggest hope is that in the four years of constitution making exercise the contentious issues have been thrashed out and will provide vital inputs to a future constitution drafting exercise. One can only hope that important lessons would have been learned and every effort made to seek broad consensus on thorny issues well ahead of the D-day. If Nepalis have had enough of something, it’s the last minute political bargaining where the stakes are so high no side can be seen as compromising.