Nepal’s Experiment with Democracy - A Game of Shifting Alliances
Dr Madhumita Srivastava Balaji

As is well known to political and strategic analysts dealing with Nepal, the only constant in the country’s recent political history has been the game of alliances and re-alliances, played by the political parties with a view to retaining power. In this game, Nepal has acquired the unique distinction of having had eight Prime Ministers since 2008 since its transition to constitutional democracy after dispensing with the traditional Monarchy. It took the political parties nearly eight years to promulgate a constitution, how so ever contentious.

Even as the major political parties were still in the midst of counting their gains and losses (details in subsequent paragraphs) in the recently concluded three-phase elections to the local level units with a view to planning their respective strategies for the crucial provincial and national elections due on November 26 and December 7, 2017, a major development took place that has the potential to shake up and shape up the future trajectory of Nepal’s political canvas for many years to come.

On October 3, 2017, the two major leftist parties, the K P Sharma Oli led Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN -MC), along with a smaller group, the Naya Shakti Party formed by former Maoist leader and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, announced a broad-based electoral alliance ahead of the upcoming provincial and federal polls. It may be noted here that CPN-MC of Prachanda has done this while still being a part of the ruling coalition led by Nepali Congress (NC) leader, Prime Minister Deuba. The Left Party leaders added that these parties will not only contest the upcoming elections in alliance, but after the polls merge into a unified leftist and progressive political movement. The alliance leaders signed an agreement incorporating the following:-

1. UML and Maoist Centre to forge an electoral alliance to share seats in Federal Parliament and Provincial Assemblies in a 60:40 ratio.
2. To prepare a joint manifesto for the upcoming elections and form a manifesto drafting committee for the upcoming Parliamentary elections.
3. To hold discussions on the party issues and not to speak derogative statements against each other in public.
4. To call on other political forces to forge electoral alliance.

The alliance leaders expect to gain 2/3rd majority in the new provincial and federal polls and thereby form a government that would promote nationality, uphold sovereignty and maintain balanced relations with both the neighbours and the international community.

As regards the post-elections merger plans, the party leaders decided:-

1. To form an eight-member party unification coordination committee with the objective to merge the three parties.
2. The committee will have four members from the UML, three from the Maoist Centre and one from Naya Shakti Party-Nepal. The committee will prepare a detailed blueprint and plan.
3. To form a document drafting committee to prepare the party’s policy and statute. Complete the unification process after the parliamentary and provincial elections.

The announcement was hailed as a milestone in the recent Nepali politics and the beginning of a process of progressive alliance to unite all leftist and democratic forces. The Alliance believes that the Nepalese people aspire for this kind of unity which is the dire need of the country.

Obviously surprised and shaken up by the sudden development, particularly the perceived ‘political back-stabbing’ by the coalition partner CPN-MC deciding to side with the opposition CPN-UML by forming an electoral alliance, NC leaders demanded action from PM Deuba to sack the CPN-MC ministers from the coalition cabinet. This has not happened though the Prime Minister has moved in this regard and also decided to induct replacement ministers. Yet the last word on the issue has not been said with the President and the Election Commission still engaged in consultations on the legal validity of the induction of new ministers during the currency of the Model Code of Conduct.

Top CPN-MC leader, Rayamajhi has said that his party ministers in the Cabinet will not quit even if the Prime Minister relieves them of portfolios. Rayamajhi added that CPN-MC was committed to its earlier agreement and would continue in the coalition till the upcoming provincial and federal parliamentary elections. However, he maintained that the party would take an appropriate decision if the PM decided anything soon. He also expressed dissatisfaction over Prime Minister’s decision to induct Rastriya Prajatantra Party leaders into the Cabinet.

What has however happened is an equally significant political move on the part of the NC to announce the formation of a counter-alliance called the Democratic Alliance along with six Madhes-based parties. The Democratic Alliance would include the Nepali Congress, Rashtriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N) Rashtriya Prajatantrik Party (RPP) led by Kamal Thapa, Rashtriya Prajatantra Party-Napal (RPP-N) led by Pashupati Shanker Rana, Rashtriya Janata Party of Mahanta Thakur and the Federal Socialist Forum led by Upendra Yadav. PM Deuba has also decided to induct Kamal Thapa and other leaders into the Cabinet, a proposal that is yet to receive Presidential approval.

The question defying easy answer is that why has this move came about now? A quick response to this is being sought in the results of the recently concluded local level elections in the seven provinces. It is argued that the two major left parties, CPN-UML and CPN-MC did fairly well with the former winning 294 positions and CPN-MC adding 106 to the Left kitty, cornering a total of 400 positions. This was well ahead of the NC which got 265 positions. Even if one were to add the 85 seats secured by the minor Madhesi and other parties to the combined tally of non-communist forces, the gap would be significant. And therefore, time was ripe for the left-forces to join hands to capture power in the key elections coming up next month. However, the picture emerging out of the vote-share analysis, suggests a less discouraging scenario for the Democratic Alliance, particularly in the third phase of polling in which Madhesi and RJP-N and NC together, accounted for nearly 70 percent of the votes polled, leaving the two major communist parties well behind. Hence, in their assessment, a combined opposition was a must to stop the communist take over as it were.

The general perception among the masses and political analysts is that both the Alliances would face tough challenges in giving final shape to their respective agendas. The Left Alliance is already getting dented with Naya Shakti Party of Baburam Bhattarai threatening to walk out of it unless his party was assigned reasonable number of seats in constituencies of their choice; demands that are unlikely to be conceded to by CPN-UML and CPN-MC. Will Bhattarai then seek accommodation with the other Alliance and if so, on what terms and what impact would it have on the Democratic Alliance partner’s electoral prospects?

In fact, the Democratic Alliance already seems over crowded with very little space left for additional or late entrants. The Democratic grouping has too many political entities, having fairly hardened positions on most issues. Apart from the fissures within NC, the main driver of the Alliance, the Madheshi parties are also bitterly divided and so is the pro-monarchy leadership. In the short time available, will it be possible for all these diverse entities and their leaders to bury their differences and come together on a common platform, work out seat adjustments, agree on constituency sharing, put together a kind of common manifesto and a common minimum programme before the electorate?

Both sides have similar challenges and both have to work on a war-footing to device their operational mechanisms. The Communist Alliance, based on the results of the recent elections, claims advantage of being a stronger grouping with better chances of electoral success. The Democratic Alliance in which Madhesis constitute over 51 percent of the votes, combined with the traditional vote bank of NC that had emerged as the single largest party in the second CA, assisted by other like-minded parties, is seen by many analysts as a formidable force. Analysts also argue, with considerable merit that the Democratic Alliance’s political ideology finds greater resonance with the masses that has reservations against a ‘Communist Coupe’.

In this context, it is pointed out that, except for the surprise emergence of the Maoists as a major political force in the elections to the first Constituent Assembly (CA), a verdict that got immediately reversed in the next CA elections, the left-wing ideology has consistently carried the tag of being the ‘second best option’ in Nepal. That the communists still managed to hold on to power for most of the time in the tenures of the first and second CAs, was not on account of clear electoral verdict in their favour. They did so only through cleaver political manipulation of fractured opposition. To make the arrangements under the aegis of the Democratic Alliance work, three factors will have to be borne in mind by PM Deuba and his allies:

1. An effective Democratic Alliance would need sincerity of purpose and cooperative approach under Deuba’s leadership,
2. NC must put aside its internal factional differences and present a united face before the electorate,
3. Distribution of tickets to winnable candidates and sharing of seats will have to be worked out quickly within each party and across allies since very little time is left between now and the provincial polls,
4. Parties like RPP and RPP (N) should at this critical stage avoid raising demands of restoration of Hindu Kingdom and Monarchy which could upset the working of the alliance,
5. Differences over the sharing of seats and allocation of tickets may lead to frictions amongst the communist partners. There is a likelihood that differences may also rise on leadership issues.

Implications for India-Nepal Relations

Given Nepal’s geo-strategic position, any factional discontent or political instability in the region would directly impact India and its relations with Nepal. India’s interest in ensuring peace and stability in Nepal is unquestioned and has been repeatedly stressed by New Delhi. Nepal’s quest for stability, development and prosperity depends on smooth transition to democracy. India has made huge investments in virtually every sphere of Nepalese economy, infrastructure, power, connectivity and social sectors. It would not like these to be derailed or held hostage to political manipulations by forces opposed to advancement of Indo-Nepal ties.

Stability comes hand in hand with an unimpaired political process. The new Constitution has now entered the final phase of implementation and both Nepal and India should work together to see this process conclude in an organized and smooth manner. An important component for the completion of the entire political process would be upcoming polls at the provincial and national levels. Hence, the need of the hour is to ensure that democratic forces unite, put aside their differences to defeat forces inimical to the traditional bonds of friendship between the peoples of the two country.

In this task, Prime Minister Deuba has to lean heavily on his political skills to garner the required across the board support for the good of his people and the country. While it is difficult even in the best of times to make any predictions or forecasts on political developments in Nepal, in the current context, noted political commentator Trailokya Raj Aryal has in a recent article in the media aptly said, “Most of us who claim to offer insights on various issues pertaining to Nepal have in fact no clue whatsoever what is happening here. We are forced by the events to change our opinion every week, if not every day”.

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