National integration is more important than elections to satisfy the ‘ego’ of certain persons linked to implementing the constitution in its current form
Though late, the six constituent parties of United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF)—Mahanth Thakur-led Tarai Madhes Democratic Party, Rajendra Mahato-led Sadbhavana Party, Sharat Singh Bhandari-led Rashtriya Madhes Samajbadi Party, Raj Kishor Yadav-led Madhesi People’s Rights Forum-Republican, Mahendra Ray Yadav-led Tarai Madhes Sadbhavana Party and Anil Jha-led Federal Sadbhavana Party— successfully merged to form Rastriya Janata Party (RJP) on April 20, 2017. Umbrella, the collective symbol of this new party, has been put in the middle of its rectangular tri-color flag: red on the top, white in the middle and green at the bottom.
However, Upendra Yadav-led Federal Socialist Party-Nepal, one of the major constituents of UDMP, did not join RJP. Possibly, his party is in dialogue with Baburam Bhattarai-led Naya Shakti Party about a possible merger. Sometime ago, Bijay Kumar Gachhedar-led Madhesi People’s Rights Forum-Democratic had also merged with Rastriya Janamukti Party (RJP) and Dalit Janajati Party (DJP) and together formed Nepal Loktantrik Forum Party.
Merger of parties in Nepal is more a matter of compulsion than of choice. On March 22, 2017, the Nepali parliament had passed a bill whereby it became pre-requisite for a political party to meet the threshold of three percent of votes cast under proportional representation system and one seat under First-Past-the-Post system to be recognized as a national party. It was this threshold that put pressure on the Madhes-based political parties to merge. It is noteworthy that in the last Constituent Assembly election in 2013, none of the Madhes-based political parties were able to get three percent of total votes.
Now with the merger of six political parties, RJP has emerged as the largest political force in Tarai, with Mahanth Thakur as its leader. As per media reports, the new party will now run on the principle of collective leadership with a system of presidium, whereby all the six chairpersons of UDMF constituents will be given an opportunity to become party president on rotational basis. Also, the central committee members of the constituent parties would automatically be central committee members of the new outfit.
The merger of Madhes-based political parties is a welcome move. However, such a change ring alarm bells for those parties in Nepal which used to exploit Madhes and its people with their ‘divide and rule’ policy. In the last Constituent Assembly elections in 2013, three major parties were able to get 88 percent of the Madhesi votes simply because Madhes-based parties were divided.
Soon after the rise of RJP, the government softened its stand to Madhesis and sought the participation of Madhes-based parties in the local level election. For this, the government made a decision to hold local election in two phases: first phase on May 14 in the hill regions and second phase, on June 14 in Madhes region. Accordingly, elections at the local level will be held in the first phase in provinces 3, 4 and 6; whereas in provinces 1, 2, 5 and 7 elections would be conducted in second phase.
Besides, the government also tabled an amendment bill in parliament with a view to addressing some demands of the Madhes-based parties and to bring them on board.
However, the Madhes-based political parties and the Federal Alliance are not convinced that their 11-point and 26-point demands respectively will ever be addressed. Therefore, they have not shelved their protest programs in Madhes and Limbuwan regions. They seem to have made adequate preparations to thwart any attempt to impose elections on them. On the other hand, KP Sharma Oli-led CPN-UML is against any amendment in the constitution that would ensure power sharing with the Madhesis. And, given the current balance of power in parliament, it is taken for granted that no amendment bill will be passed without UML support.
Moreover, the Election Commission of Nepal has its own reservations in holding elections in two phases in the process of materializing the government decision. Voter rolls in Madhes would have to be updated. New ballot papers would have to be printed. And more support of civil servants and security personnel would have to be mobilized, which could make elections most costly. Presently, the government has mobilized 300,000 civil servants, 200,000 security personnel and 75,000 temporary police forces for local level election. On top of all this, it will be essential to increase the number of local units as per the demand of the Madhes-based political parties.
At a time RJP and Federal Alliance have been gaining ground in different parts of the country and they are boycotting the local level election, it might be a herculean task to conduct elections—be it in one phase or two phases. The problem is deep-seated, which the government and ruling elites of the country are not trying to understand.
The radical forces in Madhes would not allow Madhes-based political parties to become lenient and make any compromise in dealing with the government in regard to their core demands. Equally strong is the lobby in ruling circles in government and major political parties that don’t want to share power with the Madhesis, Tharus and Janajati groups who are victims of age-old state discrimination.
Therefore, uncertainty still looms large over local election. Possibly, elections could be held in certain regions, but it will be boycotted in other parts. This does not augur well for national integration at a time the country is widely polarized along ethnic lines. National integration is more important than conducting elections just to satisfy the ‘ego’ of certain persons to implement the constitution in the existing form. It should not be forgotten that constitution is for the people, not the other way around. Constitution might come and go, but real power will always rest with the sovereign people.
As such, it will be a blunder to impose elections in the country so long as every section of the society is not on board.
The author is Professor of Economics and Executive Director of Centre for Economic and Technical Studies in Nepal