Nepal Moves Towards Democracy

Democracy is to a large extent about parties being willing to accept electoral defeat. In Nepal the Maoist Party, previously engaged in guerrilla warfare, has done precisely this.

A wave of election boycotts is sweeping across Asia. In Thailand’s election on 2 February the “Democrats” succeeded in preventing voting in enough constituencies to delay the result. Bangladesh’s New Year election descended into pure farce following a boycott by most of the opposition. Last year’s election in Malaysia triggered massive protests, while in Cambodia the opposition is refusing to accept the results of the 2013 election. While this unrest has attracted a great deal of attention, little has been written about an important positive exception in the region: in November 2013, Nepal held a Constituent Assembly election of historic importance. In defiance of poor odds in this war-torn country, turnout was high. The election was not least a litmus test of whether the Maoist Party (UCPN-M), which laid down its weapons in 2006, had truly accepted the ground rules of democracy. In fact the party suffered an unexpected and serious electoral defeat. The fact that it is now accepting the election result, if somewhat reluctantly, makes the outlook brighter for both democracy and peace in Nepal.

From civil war to constitutional strife

Photo: Helge Holtermann, PRIO

Nearly eight years after its civil war ended, Nepal is still in a phase of political transition. The civil war, which lasted from 1996 to 2006, ended rather surprisingly when the Maoist insurgents allied themselves with their former arch enemies, the major parliamentary parties. Together the allies turned against the increasingly authoritarian King Gyanendra. Massive non-violent street protests led by the allies forced the king to abdicate in April 2006. Some months later the interim government and the Maoists reached a peace agreement. This stipulated that Nepal should become a republic and that a popularly-elected assembly should adopt a new constitution. The signs seemed promising for democratic progress in Nepal.

Following this fresh start, things have proceeded at a snail’s pace. To everyone’s surprise, the Maoists emerged with by far the largest number of seats in the first Constituent Assembly elections in 2008. The party failed to win enough seats, however, to push through a constitution on its own. And although the peace agreement had stipulated that the country should become a federal republic, difficult questions remained, such as how to define the country’s federal states. The Maoists and several ethnic minority-based parties wanted a relatively large number of states, to be defined along linguistic and ethnic lines. The two other major parties, the Congress Party and the United Marxist-Leninists (the UML, which despite its name is a moderate, social-democratic party) wanted fewer states, to be defined along geographic lines.

The Maoist Party’s standpoint on these issues has strikingly little to do with Maoism. This is the result of horse-trading over the years whereby ideological principles have had to be sacrificed for political gain. During the civil war, the party won support in some rural districts by promising regional self-governance and minority rights. But now the Maoists need also to attract voters in urban areas, where these policies enjoy little popularity. Opinion polls show a clear majority as being opposed to having the new federal states ethnically defined. Nevertheless the Maoist and minority parties have refused to budge, contributing to the constitutional deadlock. The first Constituent Assembly was forced to prolong its mandate on several occasions. Finally, however, a Maoist-led coalition government dissolved the assembly and called a new election.

Pre-election unrest

The run-up to the November 2013 election was marked by unrest. A dissident Maoist party (CPN-M), along with 32 other small parties, decided to boycott and sabotage the election. One week before the election these parties called for a 10-day transport strike. The strike only lasted a couple of days, fizzling out as more and more people defied it. The dissident Maoists then proceeded to organise a series of hoax and actual bombings on buses and other transport vehicles. These resulted in many injuries and a small number of deaths. Despite these events, and well assisted by a major security operation, turnout was high. Approximately 78 per cent of eligible voters participated, which was far more than in 2008. The election was also assessed as free and fair by international observers.

The losers’ choice

As in 2008, the result of the 2013 election was a surprise. The Maoists lost two-thirds of their representatives, trailing far behind the Congress Party and the UML. This was undoubtedly the greatest setback in the party’s history. In two decades the Maoists had gone from being a marginal group to become the leading political force in the country, only once again to lose their hold on power.
The Maoists’ immediate reaction showed an unfortunate reversion to old attitudes. Claiming that there had been major electoral fraud, the party asserted that it was a victim of a “national and international conspiracy”. The first few days after the election were tense. The Maoists were rumoured to be in talks with the dissident CPN-M and in the run-up to Christmas there seemed to be a real possibility that the two parties would reunite, go underground and resume an armed struggle. Fortunately this did not come about. On Christmas Eve the major parties reached an agreement to the effect that the Maoist Party would participate in the new Constituent Assembly so long as the allegations of electoral fraud were investigated, and so long as a new constitution in accordance with the stipulations of the peace agreement was adopted within one year. The new Constituent Assembly was sworn in on 21 January 2014.

A step in the right direction

A fundamental characteristic of democracy is parties’ willingness to accept electoral defeat. In established democracies we take this for granted, but for young democracies it can often prove a fatal stumbling block. For a revolutionary party, which until recently had an army at its disposal, accepting defeat is far from self-evident. For Nepal, the Maoist Party’s acceptance in practice of the election result is a major step away from political violence and towards democracy. This represents a bright spot in a region where several other countries seem to be moving in the wrong direction.

Authors: PRIO researchers Helge Holtermann and Scott Gates.

This post was published in Norwegian as an OpEd in Nye Meninger 04 February 2014.

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