16-22 December 2016 #837

Heads we lose, Tails we lose

Separating hills and plains may lead to violence, keeping hills and plains together may also lead to violence.

If we were to update readers in one sentence about the state of affairs in Kathmandu as 2016 draws to a close it would be with this: Debate in parliament about constitutional amendments on federalism is deadlocked because of elections, but elections themselves are necessary to prevent a deadlock on the constitution.

So, which comes first, the constitution or elections, has become a chicken or egg question. On one side of this debate is Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, his Maoist-Centre and Nepali Congress coalition comrades who want to register the second amendment bill in Parliament to untangle the political knot. The opposition UML is sticking to its demand that the hill districts of Province 5 cannot under any circumstances be grafted into Province 4. To ram the point home, the UML has obstructed parliament, and spearheaded mammoth cross-party protests in Butwal and other towns of Central Nepal against chopping up Province 5.

The question in everyone’s mind is: if this is the kind of opposition and hill-plains friction that greets plans to change boundaries in Province 5, imagine the kind of possible bloodshed that will accompany any attempts to gerrymander with Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari in Province 2 and Kailali and Kanchanpur in Province 7. Nepal is in a heads we lose, tails we lose situation: separating hills and plains may lead to violence, and keeping hills and plains together may also lead to violence. Yet, there is no alternative to finding a compromise suitable to all. Prolonging this uncertainty will push Nepal further into instability and a constitutional void if elections are not held in 13 months. 

Obstruction of parliament is already impacting on pending legislations, including bills dealing with the implementation of the new constitution, or the impeachment process against CIAA chief Lokman Singh Karki. The dispute is now seriously impacting on the election timetable for local, provincial and federal polls. The expiration date of the current Parliament is 21 January 2018, and no one knows what will happen if the three elections are not completed by then. There is no precedent in Nepali history to deal with that contingency. The biggest casualty of that vacuum will be the Constitution drafted by the Constituent Assembly.

Since it is electoral reckoning that has deadlocked negotiations on the constitution amendments, that is where efforts must be made to find a way out. The Madhesi parties are convinced that the boundaries of future federal provinces will determine their continued existence. The Nepali Congress hopes to use a Madhes-friendly second amendment to bolster its support in coming elections and regain its once-dominant position in the Tarai. The Maoist-Centre, for its part, wants to use the amendment to reclaim the support of Janajatis whom it promised provinces based on ethnic identity. 

The UML is playing the nationalist (read anti-Indian) card to the hilt by labelling the second amendment an Indian game plan. The party is making itself out to be the only one that can safeguard the country’s sovereignty and independence. In this, the Maoist-NC plan to amputate Province 5 has become the UML’s most potent weapon for next year’s elections. 

All political forces in Nepal are doing what parties usually do: ensure an electoral upper hand. The only problem is that populism and polls usually lead to disaster. The only way to ease the current volatility, confirm election dates, and steer the country away from a risky future is for the leaders of the biggest and second biggest parties (NC and the UML) to put their heads together. Sher Bahadur Deuba and K P Oli did so this week, but it was more of a chance meeting than anything else. 

As we see it, a clear compromise is possible if the NC can accept a national government after the constitution goes into force, and for the UML to agree that the second amendment is necessary for the proper implementation of the constitution.

Such a trade-off can pave the way for three tiers of elections and give the country and its long-suffering people some much needed breathing space. 

Read also:

Hold all elections

Whose election is it anyway?, Anurag Acharya

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