For the fifth straight time, the President has extended the deadline for political consensus. Hope floats once again. Hectic parleys between the political parties continue. But a national government, or unity government or national unity government or consensus government or whatever other name it goes by, remains elusive.
An agreement is possible. Several agreements have been reached in the past under equally trying circumstances.Last year there was the six-point agreement between the UCPN(Maoist), NC and UDMF in November; the four-point agreement between UDMF and UCPN(Maoist) in August; the five-point agreement between the UCPN(Maoist), NC and CPN-UML in May; the four-point agreement between the MJF, CPN-UML and UCPN(Maoist) in March; and the seven-point agreement between CPN-UML and UCPN(Maoist) in February.
Go back further in time. There was a three-point agreement in 2010, a nine-point agreement in 2009, a ten-point agreement in 2008, a 23-point agreement in 2007 and, of course, the historic 12-point agreement in 2005. That’s 83 points of agreement. With so many agreements in place you would think there’s not much left to disagree about.
Over the last seven years Nepal has been ruled by these numbered agreements. Yet, lasting consensus has remained hauntingly elusive.
Maybe the discord stems from these numbered agreements itself, from our approach to consensus, from our very quest for consensus. Maybe national government doesn’t exist. Maybe it will be easier to find the tooth fairy than the consensus Prime Ministerial candidate.
Agreements between political parties lack legitimacy. These are private agreements between parties, sometimes specific individuals within the parties, without the institutional authority of the State or the endorsement of the broader public. Negotiations leading up to the agreements take place in dark, smoke-filled backrooms, or sunny luxurious conference rooms of fancy hotels. Either way, they leave no room for public participation outside of the party, or sometimes, even for alternate views within the parties.
Parties overreach in these agreements, often dictating outcomes for the entire country rather than deciding how signatories of the agreement should behave amongst themselves. In the current round of negotiations, for instance, the Maoists are reportedly seeking a “package deal” covering constitutional issues and election dates.
Even if a “package deal” were reached, why would it be binding on the country? As elected members to the Constituent Assembly, or parliament, these party representatives had the legal authority to agree on behalf of the nation. But as mere leaders of political parties, lacking the formal authority of being representatives, they have no more authority to institute sweeping agreements than you, I or any other ordinary citizen.
A national consensus, as is being sought now, is practically impossible. The Baidya faction, for instance, is already smarting from not being better represented in the current talks. Should the group be ignored for being too inconsequential at the moment? Think back to the mid-nineties when a certain 40-point demand from a then rag-tag group was ignored. A decade and half later, the bearers of those demands have emerged as kingmakers (or king destroyers, depending on your perspective).
Despite these shortcomings, an agreement must be found. Even if these agreements are crafted by political parties without formal representative authority; even if the parties continue to dogmatically pursue their narrow political interests without concern for broader national issues; even if political negotiations involve shady deals in smoke-filled backrooms, a deal must be found. There is simply no recourse.
But there is a better way to manage the political process.
Most people, including political analysts, blame political parties for the failure of these talks. That criticism is misplaced.
In the current negotiations, political parties are doing what they should be doing and what they know best—representing the interests of their constituencies. They derive their mandate from their constituency. Party leadership doesn’t easily allow for statesmanship and they shouldn’t be faulted for their lack of it.
Political parties must continue to negotiate hard. The Maoists shouldn’t apologize for demanding a “package deal.” The NC shouldn’t apologize for dogmatically pursuing the Prime Minister’s office. Political parties must remain singularly focused on delivering to their respective constituencies the best possible deal. This is their responsibility and what they do best. However, this doesn’t mean that the country should descend into an endless stalemate and political paralysis.
The parties are doing fine. The President needs to do more. The institution of the President is collapsing, reduced to no more than a timekeeper keeping track of passing deadlines.
Calls for a stronger, more persuasive President immediately raise fears of a coup. A few months ago, rumors of a coup had the entire system cringing in fear. The prime minister, quite correctly, asked the President to remain within bounds.
A coup would be disastrous for Nepal. It would reverse the gains of many years. But outside of a coup, and within the bounds of the constitution, there are many ways the President can exercise leadership in better shepherding the political process. And he must.
The President must speak to the Nepali people every day. He must be on television, radio and the front-page of newspapers daily as the voice that reassures the Nepali people that their country is not falling apart. He must overshadow the polarized discussion between the parties. He must emerge as the symbol of stability. Such leadership doesn’t require a coup.
On the night the constitutional process collapsed, the President said nothing to cheer his dejected citizens up. It was the prime minister who gave a late night press conference—a short, derisive speech where he scoffed at opponents and blamed everyone except himself for their intransigence.
The prime minister offered little hope to Nepalis freshly bruised from four lost years. The President should have been the healer. But he remained in stoic silence, with no words of solace or reassurance, except to say that he would consult with parties after the Republic Day celebrations.
Civil society has already been knocking on the President’s door. The President must do more to champion the current negotiations, instead of just leaving it to political parties to figure it out. He must bring the negotiations under his direct watch and on his schedule. He must shield it from public glare where parties might have greater room for flexibility. He must actively help to broker a deal. Maybe an ultimatum helps. But he must do more. He must stake his personal credibility and the sanctity of the President’s office on a successful outcome. Such leadership doesn’t require a coup.
Unlike past numbered agreements between political parties, the President must provide the symbolic, moral, legal, and institutional authority of his office to secure and implement an effective and lasting agreement.
The President cannot remain a spectator to history.
The author is a consultant on energy and environment, and founded ReVera Information, a market research firm in New Delhi firstname.lastname@example.org