Most of the spin doctors in Nepal were completely taken aback by a record 70 per cent turnout in the second Constituent Assembly elections last week, despite a serious threat by the radical Maoists who had vowed to disrupt the polls.
The complacent senior leaders of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias “Prachanda”, have long been exhibiting absolute certitude that they would sweep the election. They even congratulated the people immediately after the voting process was over.
As the counting progressed, the former rebels were stunned to find themselves trailing in most constituencies. They called back all their representatives from the counting centres at midnight after sensing the imminent defeat in the election, and attributed the results to a massive electoral fraud.
A visibly shocked Prachanda alleged that “invisible hands” were behind the “unexpected results” and threatened to boycott the soon-to-be elected Constituent Assembly if counting of votes was not halted immediately and a commission formed to investigate the “conspiracy” against his party. But, his tantrums impressed neither the election commission nor the international community, or even Maoist sympathisers.
Rather, the recently held election was widely regarded as one of the fairest elections in the parliamentary history of Nepal that witnessed sweeping reforms in electoral roll management that required voters’ fingerprints and photographs. Absentees were struck off the electoral roll and the names of those registered in more than one constituency removed. Thus, the total number of voters had gone down by around 5.5 million from the previous electoral roll. It made the chances of casting proxy votes almost impossible.
The Maoists won only 26 seats out of the total 240 under the first-past-the-post system, whereas they had 120 in 2008. The main Opposition Nepali Congress (NC) and the then third largest party CPN-UML won 105 and 96 seats respectively. The Maoists have not only suffered a humiliating defeat but they have proved themselves to be the lone loser.
Though many political crystal gazers are surprised by the dramatically abysmal performance of the largest party in the last Assembly, others argue that the defeat was not unexpected because of the following reasons:
First, when the Maoists contested the election in 2008, they had both money and muscles — 2 Ms that are regarded essential for the electoral success in this part of the world. The party had around 1,00,000 full-time members in the militant wing, the Young Communist League (YCL), who were involved in extortion to generate sufficient funds for the mobilisation of cadres for electoral success. As the former combatants were humiliatingly evicted from UN-monitored cantonments by the Nepal Army — the erstwhile arch rival of Maoists — and therefore they remained inactive during the election. The woes of the YCL were compounded by the resource crunch, growing disillusionment among its members, and domestic and international pressure to dismantle its paramilitary structure. The loss of muscle and the intrepid electoral reforms meant the Maoists could not rig the election and intimidate cadres and voters of other parties in 2013. Interestingly, the total number of votes Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai received in 2008 election from his constituency in Gorkha exceeded the total number of voters in the reformed electoral roll of the constituency this time around.
Second, the dispute over the type of federalism was the major reason behind the dissolution of the last Assembly in 2012 and was one of the prominent agenda in 2013 election. Nepal is home to over 100 ethnic groups. The Maoists pushed for ethnic federalism, while the Opposition parties, mainly the Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML, floated a type of federalism based on economic viability and a massive decentralisation of power.
The Maoists were wrong in assuming that the issue of ethnic federalism had widespread public support. The party was trounced, while other parties espousing ethnic federalism were virtually wiped out. In fact, people feared that such federalism with special rights to ethnic groups would trigger ethnic conflict and make job of Christian missionaries easier in an overwhelmingly Hindu majority State. The Maoists’ push for ethnic federalism boomeranged and led to an upsurge in Hindu nationalism. Ashtray Prajatantra Party, which had nominal existence in the last Assembly, is going to have a sizeable presence in the new Assembly. It should be noted that federalism was not the major agenda in the 2008 election, and it came into the limelight only after the last Assembly was dissolved over the issue. Ethnic federalism, known euphemistically as identity-based federalism, brought the Maoists, the nouveau riche class, closer to the elites of ethnic communities and overshadowed the class-based politics that was prime force of the insurgency.
Third, there was a vertical split in the Maoist party in June 2012 over the party’s tactical course to socialism. The more radical faction led by Mohan Baidya “Kiran”, who is known for his clean image and simple lifestyle, formed a separate party full of radicals and called for the election boycott. Around half of the war-time central committee members and ordinary cadres are with Kiran, though he lacks a popular support base. At the same time the new entrants to the Prachanda-driven party were opportunists, lacked ideological commitment and failed to appeal the poor and lower middle-class which were the Maoist support base in 2008 election. Many of the old-timers in the party were also involved in smuggling and dubious financial dealings and lost the trust of the commoners. Similarly, the way the party was wiped out from the Kathmandu valley shows the urban middle class is disillusioned with the current chaos and yearns for the old order.
Fourth, there was a strong anti-incumbency factor. The swing voters, who were fed up with the traditional parties like the NC and CPN-UML, had voted for the Maoists in 2008. But the Maoists appeared, at least in public eyes, much more corrupt than the traditional parties after their rise to power. While core party leaders reveled in their new-found wealth, the middle and lower rank cadre were left at the periphery and became increasingly alienated. Prachanda preferred to ignore the moral decadence of the party and he himself led a luxurious lifestyle in a grand building that is popularly known as Prachanda Palace. He developed a cult personality and failed to understand what was happening on the ground. His son Prakash married thrice in the span of six years and leads a lavish lifestyle.
And finally, local issues like infrastructure development and service delivery — not the “progressive state restructuring” floated by the Maoists — were highlighted in the elections. People voted for local candidates who better understand local issues and their concerns. While the NC and UML understood this reality and fielded local candidates, the Maoists chose what commentators say were “tourist candidates” unfamiliar with the local dynamics. Prachanda himself lost the election from a constituency in the Kathmandu valley, his daughter suffered humiliating defeat in another constituency in the valley, while his daughter-in-law (third wife of his son Prakash) too lost from a constituency in the far-western part of the country that had long been regarded as the Maoist bastion.
But if the Maoists suffered humiliating defeat in one of the fairest elections in the Nepalese history, why did Prachanda blame ‘invisible hands’ for his defeat?
There are three reasons for his move. First, the results were unexpected for Prachanda as he thought he would garner a majority for his agenda of ethnic federalism. And he needed a face-saver. Second, Prachanda is supposed to resign from the position of the party chairman on the moral grounds for driving the party down this disastrous course. But he wants to retain his position, and therefore accusing foreign hands for the disaster may save his skin. Third, he is eager to strike a hard bargain for some key political positions for accepting the defeat.
His move is simple. Prachanda met the chairman of the breakaway Maoist party, Kiran, after the defeat, suggesting that he could unite with Kiran and foment political chaos. The Maoist leader demanded that parties should revert to the provision of consensus politics for power-sharing and constitution drafting. It may be recalled that the interim Constitution framed after the regime change in 2006 had the similar provision. But after the Maoists won the election in 2008, they were ready to change this provision into a majority-based system.
The NC and UML are not likely to revert to the constitutional provision of consensus-based politics. What they are likely to do is to give some political appointments to the Maoists. And, it is also in the best interest of the country to seek consensus from the Maoists for Constitution drafting. The Maoists have the Hobson’s choice.
The issue of ethnic federalism has been done away with in the 2013 elections, but this doesn’t mean the issue of identity should be ignored altogether. The parties can now adopt the concept of multi-ethnic federal provinces that are acceptable to most of the ethnic groups. The ideals of secularism, federalism and republicanism were the mandates of the mass movement in 2006 and the subsequent Madhesi movement in 2007. So these provisions should remain intact. Now it is the responsibility of all the major parties to reach out to each other and turn Nepal into a multicultural state.
(Post Bahadur Basnet has covered extensively Nepal’s Leftist movement and parliamentary affairs for “The Kathmandu Post” and “Republica” — Nepal’s leading national dailies. He is currently a visiting fellow at Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis)