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Nepal’s political parties and the difficult road towards a new Constitution

Written by Enrico D’Ambrogio

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. A 10-year guerrilla conflict ended in 2006 and led to the country’s transition from monarchy to republic. However, the political parties have so far been unable to reach a compromise on a new constitution, or to provide the political stability that could allow the country to develop its economy.

Long political deadlock

Nepal experienced 10 years of armed conflict between the Maoist guerrilla and the Nepalese army, ending in 2006. A Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Seven-Party Alliance interim government and the then Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) was achieved in November that year, setting the stage for Nepal’s transition to democracy. An interim constitution was adopted in 2007 and Nepal shifted from a constitutional monarchy to a federal republic in April 2008, when a first ‘Sambidhan Sabha’ or Constituent Assembly (CA) was elected, with the task of drafting a new constitution.

Nepal's political parties and the difficult road towards a new Constitution

© stefanlandauer / Fotolia

The CA elected Ram Baran Yadav first President of Nepal in July 2008. Severe differences over the form of federalism prevented the CA from adopting a new constitution within the fixed term. The parties did not succeed in achieving an agreement, with the task complicated by the 30-million-strong multi-ethnic population (including a complex system of castes and minorities) and the requirement of a two-thirds majority to adopt a constitution.

The CA was dissolved in May 2012. In March 2013, the leaders of four major political parties forged an 11‑point agreement to end the prolonged political and constitutional crisis. Nevertheless both the appointment of Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi as chair of the Interim Election Council and the announcement of the election of a new CA were publicly opposed by a number of parties, including a 33-party alliance led by the newly created Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M), which undertook a rigid boycott of the entire election process. The interim constitution, which originally allowed for only one constituent assembly election, had to be modified by presidential order in March 2013, in order to remove legal barriers to holding a new election.

2013 elections to a second Constituent Assembly

The 19 November 2013 elections for the new CA saw 139 parties registered – 76 of which did not exist at the 2008 elections. Many of the registered parties were regional and/or ethnicity-based. The election was conducted under the same mixed system in place for the 2008 election: 240 seats were elected in first-past-the-post races; 335 seats were elected through proportional representation in a single nationwide constituency (with legal provision for political parties to choose, after the determination of results, which candidates receive mandates); and the remaining 26 seats were left to be filled by the government. The CA kept its 601-seat capacity, despite an attempt to reduce it to 491 seats.

A total of 12 147 865 voters (including female, male and 155 third-gender voters) chose from among the 6 127 candidates, bringing turnout to over 75% in an election praised by the EU. These figures may not take into account several million people excluded from the vote. In the second CA, 84% of members are new, and there are 172 women, who took nearly 30% of the 575 elected seats.

In February 2014, putting an end to several months of political deadlock, Sushil Koirala, president of the Nepali Congress, the election-winning party, was elected Prime Minister by the CA. Some observers pointed

out that the dominance of the male, high-caste elite persists in Koirala’s cabinet. The government started to nominate its 26 members to the CA only in late August 2014, but a year after the elections deadlock remains.

Main political parties in the Constituent Assembly

Break-ups are a very common feature of political parties in Nepal, and similarities in their names may lead to confusion when referring to one faction or the other.

Nepali Congress (NC) is, since the 2013 elections, the largest political party in the CA. With 34.1% of votes, it secured 196 seats. This reform-oriented centrist party, the oldest in Nepal, founded in 1947, is a member of the Socialist International. Since the 1980s, it abandoned its socialist economic programme in favour of a mixed economy, privatisation, and a market economy in certain sectors. It embraced democratic socialism through the protection and promotion of nationalism, while its foreign policy orientation is towards non-alignment and good relations with India.

Communist Party of Nepal (Unified-Marxist-Leninist) (CPN-UML), founded in 1991. It got 30.4% of votes and 175 seats in the CA. The party embraced the ‘Peoples’ multi-party democracy‘: it is committed to a competitive multi-party system, but firmly believes that power can be attained through elections by winning over rival ‘bourgeois’ parties. The need to update the party’s guiding principles has been raised recently. CPN-UML has criticised the NC for being too close to India (60% of Nepal’s trade by volume is with India) and therefore a threat to Nepal’s sovereignty.

Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (UCPN(M)): founded in 1994, this faction led a 10-year guerrilla war until 2006. In December 2004, the European Union condemned the then Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) for using children as soldiers in the civil war in Nepal, and for other human-rights violations. In April 2003, the US Department of State had placed CPN(M) on its list of terrorist organisations and only delisted it in 2012. In 2006, the UCPN(M) joined the other parties in calls for a free parliamentary election and committed to the peace process. The party had secured the largest number of members in the previous CA elected in 2008 (220 seats) and ran the first of several unstable governments from August 2008 to May 2009. It then ran a further cabinet from August 2011 to March 2013. The 2013 elections relegated the UCPN(M) to third position (13.9% of votes, 80 seats) and provoked an internal debate on its future strategies.

Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) was established in 1990. It holds 24 seats (4.2% of votes). Nationalism, democracy and liberalism have remained the three main ideological pillars of the party. It is the only political faction supporting the restoration of the Hindu kingdom in Nepal under the Shah dynasty.

Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum, Nepal (Loktantrik) (MJF-D) is one of the parties representing the Madheshi population from Terai in Southern Nepal. It holds 14 seats (2.4% of the votes).

Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) does not sit in the CA. It was founded in June 2012, when one third of the most radical members of the UCPN-M split from the party accusing it of being too moderate and neo-revisionist. The CPN-M led a campaign to boycott the elections. The party claimed India should not interfere in the Nepalese peace process and raised the issue of ‘protecting national independence’ by rebalancing Indian influence through enhanced relations with China. Its leaders do not exclude armed revolt.

The European Parliament and Nepal

The European Parliament maintains relations with Nepalese parliamentarians through the Delegation for relations with South Asia (DSAS).

The EP adopted its last resolution on Nepal on 17 June 2010. MEPs expressed deep concern about the non-existence of a permanent constitution. They called on the Nepalese Government to address the problem of 800 000 stateless Nepalese by simplifying citizenship procedures.

In its resolution of 7 April 2011 on the ban on elections for the Tibetan government in exile in Nepal, the European Parliament urged the Nepalese authorities to respect the democratic rights of Tibetans in Nepal, as well as their freedom of expression, assembly and association. The EP asked the Nepalese government ‘to resist the strong pressure exerted by the Chinese Government to silence the Tibetan community in Nepal’ using unjustified restrictions.

MEPs have voiced their concerns over caste-based discrimination in Nepal and in other countries on several occasions, in particular in the resolution of 10 October 2013. The European Parliament asked for identity cards to avoid reference to caste, and expressed serious concerns about the social exclusion of Dalits (‘untouchables’) and violence perpetrated against Dalit women.

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