Madhesi Agitation Threatens to Derail Nepal Elections
The Madhesi agitation in the Terai region of Nepal has intensified with the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) displaying their intention of keeping out of the elections to the Constituent Assembly by not submitting their list of candidates for proportional representation, the deadline for which ended Feb 20.
Several districts in the Terai region are under curfew following the UDMF's call for an indefinite shutdown. Police have fired at demonstrators at several places and violent incidents have left over 150 people injured. Kathmandu has been feeling the effect of the strike with shortages of several commodities, including fuel, after the blockading of the East-West Highway. The government has been forced to make special arrangements to bring heavily guarded convoys of petrol tankers from the border through the Terai area to Kathmandu.
The UDMF alliance of the three main Madhesi parties - Terai-Madhes Democratic Party (TMDP), Nepal Sadbhavana Party and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) - had called for a peaceful, indefinite shutdown Feb 13. But the presence of a large number of armed, militant Madhesi groups has given the agitation a violent turn with bomb explosions at several places and a growing number of clashes with the security forces.
Talks between the Madhesi leaders and the seven-party alliance (SPA) representatives held Tuesday did not lead to any results. The UDMF leaders asked for the release of those arrested during the on-going agitation, withdrawal of false cases, medical treatment for the injured and stopping repressive measures against their activists.
On Wednesday, 38 of the 74 registered parties submitted their lists to the Election Commission, but none of the Madhesi parties submitted their list of candidates. According to the interim constitution, the Constituent Assembly of 601 seats would have 335 of its members elected through a proportional representation system, 240 members would be elected through a first-past-the-post election and the remaining 26 members would be nominated by the prime minister. The deadline for filing the names of the candidates for the first-past-the-post elections is Feb 25.
After the collapse of the talks between the UDMF leaders and representatives of the SPA earlier this week, there have been some informal meetings between the Madhesi leaders and some representatives of the Nepali Congress party. Both the government and the UDMF need to make greater efforts to resolve the crisis for if the situation in the Terai districts worsens there is the danger of the agitation getting out of the hands of the Madhesi political parties.
The Election Commission has extended the date for submission of the closed list for proportional representation to Feb 24 on the request of the government as efforts to bring the Madhesi parties into the electoral process were still continuing.
The Madhesis living in the densely populated Terai region of Nepal have been agitating to press for the redressal of their longstanding grievances. People living in the Terai area have complained of being treated as second-class citizens and excluded from government jobs and political power.
The UDMF had submitted a list of six demands, which included declaring 45 of the people killed in the Madhes agitation as martyrs and giving compensation to their families. The government has paid compensation to the kin of 24 people but has not declared them as martyrs.
The UDMF demanded a commitment to form a federal, democratic republic with autonomy and self-determination, proportional representation at all levels of government and immediate representation in the army. The Madhesi leaders want the government to hold talks with the armed groups.
Some of the demands of the UDMF leaders have already been conceded, but there are some that can only be taken up by the Constituent Assembly. The government is committed to declaring a republic on the first day of the Constituent Assembly. It has taken a decision on 45 percent representation in government jobs for minorities and the underprivileged. The SPA coordination mechanism had said that the demand for autonomy and self-determination were not acceptable as these issues needed to be dealt with by the Constituent Assembly.
With Feb 25 as the last day for filing nominations for the Constituent Assembly elections scheduled for April 10, there is a small window of opportunity to bring in the Madhesi parties into the contest. An election without the participation of the Madhesi people is not an option. Postponed twice earlier, holding the elections with the widest participation is of prime importance for ensuring the credibility of the peace process.
(Shubha Singh is a writer on the Indian diaspora and international affairs. She can be reached at email@example.com)
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