One week after the Seven Party Alliance government and the Madhesi leaders signed an agreement ending the agitation in Nepal's Terai region, an election mood is slowly settling over the area.
The candidates of Madhesi parties filed their papers as the new nominations deadline for Nepal's elections to the Constituent Assembly drew to a close.
However, the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) - the three party Madhesi group that had led the 16-day strike in the Terai region - was unable to forge an alliance among its constituent parties at the time of filing nominations.
The strike in the Terai region had been called by the UDMF to press for the demands of the Madhesi people, who had long been marginalised in Nepal. The strike was often violent and had crippled the distribution system causing severe shortages throughout the country. It also threatened to disrupt the elections.
The agreement between the UDMF and the government, signed in the presence of Prime Minister G.P. Koirala, Communist Party of Nepal-UML leader Madhav Nepal and Maoist leader Prachanda addressed most of the Madhesi demands.
The government agreed to declare those killed in the Madhesi agitation as martyrs and to give their families a sum of Rs.1 million each as compensation, to release the Madhesi leaders in custody and to withdraw all cases filed against them.
It assured proportional representation for Madhesis, aboriginal people, indigenous nationalities, Dalits and backward communities in all government services. It was agreed that the crucial demand on the structure of the autonomous regions including the Madhes region would be decided by the Constituent Assembly.
The UDMF together with the government then called upon all armed groups to come to the negotiating table to help create conditions for a fair and violence-free election. The important task ahead for the government now is to persuade the armed groups to allow peaceful elections. Some of the armed factions have been targeting activists of the Nepali Congress and other parties in the Terai region.
The negotiations were not an easy process for the Madhesi leaders. The radical Madhesi groups were opposing elections and held demonstrations. Police action against protestors and violence had marked nomination day Feb 25 in several places in the Terai.
There was tremendous pressure on the Madhesi leaders not to sell the movement short by the more radical elements, which felt it was the best time to press their demands as the government was caught in the tight position of having to hold the elections as scheduled. Despite tight security arrangements, election rallies jointly organised by the ruling seven party alliance were disrupted by bomb explosions.
The armed militant groups had been most vociferous about thwarting the elections but in the changed mood in the Terai area, three of the armed groups gave a joint statement expressing their willingness to hold talks with the government, if there was "enabling atmosphere." There seems to be a growing understanding among them that if elections are not held on schedule, it would be the Madhesis who would be the real losers.
According to UML leader Madhav Nepal, the government is making efforts to bring the militant groups to the negotiating table. There is a large number of armed groups, their factions and splinter groups in the Terai region and several militant sections are opposed to the deal with the government and the elections.
Candidates from the Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party (TMLP), the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) and the Nepal Sadbhawana Party (NSP) filed their nominations March 6, the last day of the extended period for filing nominations.
A Madhesi Janadhikar Forum candidate and a candidate from the Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party filed their nominations from the same constituency as Sadbhawana Party president Rajendra Mahato. In several constituencies, there are multiple Madhesi contestants.
A clearer picture will emerge once the election commission releases the final list of candidates after the last date for withdrawal of nominations. The 601-member constituent assembly will have 240 directly elected members and 335 members elected on a proportional representation system according to party lists, while the government will nominate the remaining 26.
Madhesi Janadhikar Forum chairman Upendra Yadav, who led the Madhesi agitation in 2007, is pitted against Sujata Koirala, daughter of Prime Minister G.P. Koirala in Sunsari district that is dominated by Madhesi voters. Sujata Koirala has been in the centre of a controversy ever since her father inducted her in the cabinet and assigned considerable political responsibility to her.
The Nepali Congress had been the dominant party in the Terai region but the agitation has changed the scene altogether, for the ruling party will suffer the consequences of alienation that resulted in the Madhesi agitation.
The Nepali Congress was weakened when senior Madhesi leader Mahanta Thakur quit the cabinet late last year to set up the UDMF. Shortly after the government concluded the agreement with the UDMF, more than half a dozen legislators belonging to the Nepali Congress left the party to join the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum. The agitation has left the other political parties, which had traditional pockets of influence, unsure of their support in the Terai.
With less than five weeks to go for the elections, the government has to take more intensive steps to ensure that the armed militant groups do not disrupt polls in the Terai.
(Shubha Singh is a writer on the Indian diaspora and international affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)