Nepal the mountain republic of South Asia has been doomed with elections to the constitutional assembly having been postponed twice so far. While inadequate preparations and political intransigence was the cause for postponement of elections the first two times, demands by the Madhesi parties threatened the same third time around.
The crisis was finally defused after prolonged negotiations and a Bandh in the Terai which extended for a fortnight, bringing Nepal virtually to a standstill. Finally on 28 February the deadlock was broken as Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala on behalf of the Seven-Party alliance (SPA) coalition government and leaders of the three Madhesi parties affiliated to the United Madhesi Democratic Front (UMDF) Nepal Sadhbhawana Party, Madhesi People's Rights Forum (MPRF) and Terai-Madhes Democratic Party, signed an agreement. The Bandh in the Terai was called off and victory rallies were organised in all districts including Bara, Parsa, Dhanusha, Rautahat, Siraha, Nawalparasi, Sarlahi, Sunsari, Saptari and Morang.
The eight-point agreement states that Nepal will be a federal democratic republican state complying to the demands of regional autonomy and a federal system of governance including the Madhesi people's demand for an autonomous Madhes Pradesh. There will be distinct power sharing between the centre (Kathmandu) and the region (pradesh). Compulsory appointment, promotion and nomination of Madhesi, indigenous communities, women, Dalit, backward areas and minority communities to ensure proportional participation in security bodies (including Nepal Army) and all organs of the state will be carried out. A Five point agreement has also been signed with the Federal Republican National Front (FRNF) representing the minorities in Eastern Nepal.
The beginnings of a crisis was evident when on 9 February, the three major Madhesi parties, MPRF, Terai-Madhes Democratic Party and Sadbhawana Party formed a new alliance, UMDF. This was followed by a six point demand to the interim government. Simultaneously a programme of protests was announced to meet the demands with an indefinite general strike from 13 February and a blockade from 17 February. This placed the government under great pressure with the dates for filing nominations getting closer. The response of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) was to hold a series of rounds of talks with the UMDF. The first session was held with the Prime Minister which failed to end the dead lock and was followed with the SPA leadership. Finally a meeting on 23 February agreed to fulfill all demands other than that calling for an autonomous Madhes state. This failed to satisfy the UMDF till the Eight point Agreement was signed on 28 February. On the other hand the general strike in the Terai led to a serious crisis in economy and governance. Five persons died in some cases in police firing on demonstrators.
Some how the inability of the Nepal government to anticipate the crisis is leading to continued flux in the country. The hardening stand of the Terai leadership was evident when former Minister for Science and Technology and Nepal Congress leader Mahantha Thakur and three other Terai parliamentarians resigned on 10 December 2007. This had a snow balling effect with a number of other leaders resigning subsequently giving weight to the overall Terai agitation. A possible political crisis in Madhes hindering elections has now been overcome. The Maoists however accused an Indian role in instigating the Terai parties to seek autonomy.
The second impediment to Nepal's smooth elections is the situation in the Terai. The law and order in Terai appears to be going from bad to worse. While the Election Commission has already indicated to the government the need to control the law and order situation, this has not received due attention and the government's much vaunted plan of action of three tier security appears to be in a limbo. While the agreement has been reached with the political parties in Terai, there are at least two dozen militant groups which are active and who can disrupt the election process.
The Election Commission (EC) has announced that 2,191 candidates -- 1,698 from 33 major and fringe political parties and 493 independents-- filed their nominations in 240 election constituencies to contest the upcoming Constituent Assembly (CA) poll under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. Among the candidates, 244 are women (including 29 independents). The three major constituents of the ruling seven-party alliance-- Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and Maoist -- have filed candidacies in all constituencies across the country, whereas People's Front Nepal (PFN) and Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) have filed candidacies in 187 and 178 constituencies respectively. [Kantipur Report]
The CPN M, Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, Rastriya Prajatantra Party and pro-monarch Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP Nepal) has submitted candidacies for all 335 seats for proportional representation as well. The rules of Nepal's elections through the proportional representation system are highly complicated. As given in Kantipur Online, a party will have to provide a list of at least 34 candidates, six of which could be common candidates representing different groups. A party contesting all 335 seats could have 54 candidates under the common group. Minimum 11 seats for Madhesis, five for Dalits, 13 for janajatis, one for backward regions, 10 under 'others' and 17 for women are necessary for a party to contest. For all 335 seats, 104 seats for Madhesis, 44 for Dalits, 127 for indigenous groups, 13 for backwards regions, 101 for others and 168 for women are required. A party winning 25 seats must allocate at least seven seats for Madhesis, three for Dalits, nine for indigenous groups, one for backward regions, seven for others and 12 for women.
This is the first time that the election process in Nepal has reached the stage of filing nominations by candidates. The last two times when elections were postponed no candidates had filed nominations. This will provide an impetus to the process as the candidates will also place pressure on the leadership not to post pone elections. There has been considerable pressure on Nepal government and political parties to hold elections. Apart from official discourse from India, a delegation of Indian National Congress-I leaders visited the country from 12 February and publicly expressed its stand for the Republic rather than the monarchy. The delegation underscored the need for holding elections in time. The people of Nepal are tired of repeated bandhs and political posturing, elections as scheduled are the only ray of light ahead, and hopefully the political class will not disappoint them this time around.