- Nepal is due to hold long-delayed elections to form a new Constituent Assembly on 19 November.
- With a highly diverse society, comprising 125 ethnic groups and 127 languages, the fundamental issues dividing the main parties relate to proposals for federalism and state-restructuring under the ongoing constitution-drafting process.
- The political scene is likely to be far more fragmented following the elections, probably leading to a protracted period of coalition-building and delaying the resumption of negotiations on the constitution.
Nepal is due to hold long-delayed elections to form a new Constituent Assembly on 19 November, but considerable uncertainty remains regarding the conduct of the poll and the prospects for concluding constitutional negotiations in its aftermath.
Nepal goes to the polls on 19 November but divisions over proposed federalism mean that a lengthy period of coalition building will delay progress on a new constitution. Predicting the outcome of Nepalese elections is notoriously difficult. Few international observers took seriously the chances of former Maoist rebels when they took part in the first post-war elections in May 2008, but their party won a convincing victory, taking 38.1% of seats in the Constituent Assembly, compared with the second placed Nepali Congress, with 19.1%.
Five years later and the Maoists - now officially known as the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) - are firmly entrenched in the political scene and bear few signs of the ideology that drove their insurgency between 1996 and 2006. At the party's national convention in February 2013 - the first in 20 years - the leadership even accepted 'capitalist revolution' as the founding principle of the party, rejecting Mao Zedong's concept of 'protracted people's war'. It also dropped negative references to India, which had previously been defined as a 'principal enemy'.
As the country heads into the elections, the fundamental issues that now divide the leading parties relate to proposals for federalism and state-restructuring under the constitution-drafting process, and the way in which these issues have the potential to affect age-old hierarchies of caste and ethnicity. The Maoists have placed themselves firmly on the side of progressive forces seeking to bolster the political clout of marginalised groups, such as the Madhesi of the southern Terai region and indigenous groups, known collectively as Janjatis. In August 2012, the Maoists formed a coalition with several Madhesi and Janjati parties called the Federal Democratic Republican Alliance, which is expected to bolster their standing, particularly in the eastern and central parts of the Terai plains.
On the other side of the political divide are the Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal United Marxist-Leninist (UML), which are seen as supportive of upper castes (the Bahun and Chhetri) and have sought to maintain the centralised dominance of Kathmandu.
It was disagreement over these issues of federalism and identity - as well as over the balance of presidential and parliamentary powers - that caused the last-minute collapse of constitutional negotiations and the dissolution of the first Constituent Assembly in May 2012. Nepal has been in political limbo since, with the leading parties finally agreeing to form an interim government in February 2013 headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Khil Raj Regmi, to prepare for elections. With little pre-election polling, it is difficult to gauge the extent of support for these parties and positions. Diplomatic and journalist sources who spoke to IHS have all predicted a close race between the Maoists and NC, with the UML expected to lose ground as a result of the defection of many of its Janjati and Madhesi cadres in the past 18 months.
The spoiler element in all of this is a hardline faction of the Maoists that split off from the UCPN-M in June 2012, taking around a third of the party's cadres with it. Led by Mohan 'Kiran' Baidya, it opposes the compromises made by the parent party and has called for a boycott of the election. To create enough disruption to delegitimise the results, the faction had planned 10 days of protests starting on 11 November. Although the strike was subsequently reduced to a single day, there remains a likelihood of sporadic violence over the run up to the election.
However, Kiran's faction appears to have overplayed its hand and risks marginalisation and irrelevance should the elections pass off relatively smoothly. Already in recent months, there has been a slow trickle of cadres back to the parent Maoist party, many of whom left for personal or financial - rather than ideological - reasons. On the other hand, a powerful victory for the NC or other anti-federalist forces will support the radical faction's claim that democracy has failed marginalised groups. Their protests will severely test the limited resources of security forces, and carry a marked threat of violence, although there is little appetite for a return to full-blown insurgency after the trauma of the civil war.
In any case, the political scene is likely to look far more fragmented following the elections. Nepal is a highly diverse society, comprising 125 ethnic groups, 127 languages and a complex caste system among its population of 27 million. Personal and economic rivalries further divide groups and supplant broader political and ethnic ties. The number of Madhesi parties has mushroomed from three in 2008 to at least 17 today. Given the extent of the poverty in South Asia's poorest country, it is also far from clear that any of the proposed federalism policies will radically improve the status of marginalised communities, at least in the short-to-medium term. This is likely to cause a protracted period of coalition-building in the wake of the election, delaying the resumption of negotiations on the constitution. Further delays can be expected if the new Constituent Assembly deems that a new president must also be selected. The five-year term of the incumbent, Ram Baran Yadav, has expired but the interim constitution did not envisage his replacement until a new and permanent constitution is promulgated. Since 2008, deadlocks in negotiations and multiple changes of government mean Yadav has enjoyed considerably more influence than was envisaged for his largely ceremonial role - often acting as an arbiter between competing parliamentary parties. The selection of a successor will therefore be highly contested between parties.
Assuming the elections pass off without any significant violence and fraud, and result in a reasonable balance between competing interests, the stage will be set for the resumption of talks on drafting the constitution. Almost all technical points have been agreed during the tortuous negotiations of 2008-2012, leaving only the fraught questions of federalism and the form of government to be decided. Further delays and bitter disagreements can be expected, but the leading parties appear determined to conclude the negotiation process, and with a cushion of several years before they must again answer to their constituencies in an election, they may feel there is more scope for compromise.