The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) led by former Prime Minister K.P.Sharma Oli, has come out with flying colors in the first phase of the Nepalese local body elections held on May 14. Following the stunning performance, the questions uppermost in the minds of Nepal watchers are: “Is this a harbinger of change at the national level? Is the opposition CPN (UML) on the high road to power in Kathmandu?”
The short answer to these questions is that it is too early to say. The bulk of the local bodies’ elections are to take place on June 14, when four of the most populated provinces go to the polls. Provinces 3,4 and 6 which went to the polls on May 14, and which are hilly, have a population of about 10 million. But Provinces 1,2, 5 and 7, which go to the polls on June 14, are substantially in the plains and have a population of 18 million.
For all major political parties in Nepal, the Terai region covered by Provinces 1,2,5 and 7, poses great challenges. The Terai (or the plains region,) has a non-hill majority. And about 20% of them are Madhesis who are of Indian origin. The Madhesis are politically vocal with radical demands. Parties like CPN (UML), which are dead set against the Madhesis’s demands, will find getting their support an uphill task.
First Phase Results
As on May 21, in Provinces 3, 4 and 6 in which elections were held, the CPN (UML) led by the pro-China leader, won 112 of the 265 local units up for grabs. The Nepali Congress (NC) led by another former Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, came second with 100 units in its bag, and the Maoist Center (MC) came a very poor third with 48 units.
If one were to take the Mayoral and Chairpersons positions, in the three provinces, the CPN-UML won in 119 units; the NC in 103 units and the MC in 6 units as on May 22.
Political Backdrop of Second Phase Polls
Elections in the first phase had taken place mostly in the hill districts, home to about 10 million of Nepal’s total population of 28 million. Provinces 1,2,5 and 7, which will be going for the polls on June 14, account for about 18 million of the country’s population of 28 million. These provinces include the Terai or plains region, closest to India. Sixty five percent of the population in Terai are plainspersons like the Madhesis and others.
The Madhesis proper, who are about 20 % of the Terai population, have close kinship and business links with India and are a powerful group with grievances against the hills-based particularly Kathmandu-based Newar political elite of the country. The Madhesis have been demanding a constitutional amendment to secure greater representation in the elected bodies and in the administration in proportion to their population. They want provincial boundaries to be re-drawn to unify areas in which they dominate so that they will get more of their people into the legislature. They have also been demanding a larger number of local body units in their areas.
The Madhesis’ demand for the hiving away and re-alignment of districts has been opposed tooth and nail by the CPN-UML and resisted by the NP and MC.
To press their case, the Madhesi parties got together under one umbrella called Ghatabandhan and threatened to boycott the polls if the constitutional amendments were not carried out prior to that. The MC-NP alliance which is running the government said that the matter could be thrashed out at a Federal Commission. But the Madhesi parties wanted the changes here and now.
This put the MC-NP government in a quandary as it did not have the required majority in parliament. The main opposition party, the large CPN-UML, was totally opposed to any tampering of the existing constitution which came into being in 2015 after a hard and long struggle. The CPN-UML has also been wary of the Madhesis given their Indian links which are often brazenly flaunted. The CPN-UML has also been explicitly pro-China.
After seeing the excellent performance of the CPN-UML in the first phase of the local body elections, the NC and MC took a decision to increase the number of local body units in the Terai region by 22.
But the CPN-UML leader K.P.Sharma Oli cried foul and demanded to know how the government could take a drastic decision of this sort without consulting anybody else. He said government has no authority to do such a thing.
The Election Commissioner, Ila Sharma, said that it would be very difficult to hold the second phase of the elections on June 14, if the number of units are suddenly increased. That the decision was taken suddenly only to get the Madhesis to vote for the NP and MC and not CPN-UML is clear. The Election Commissioner said that earlier, on April 23, when she had given government seven days time to increase the number of units, the government had taken no notice of it.
Earlier the government took a political decision to withdraw criminal cases against those Madhesis and Tharus who indulged in violence at Tikapur in October 2015. Eight security personnel and a minor were killed in the riots. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) took serious objection to this politically motivated decision. The commission said that to provide amnesty to those charged with carnage, vandalism and arson during curfew hours amounts to promoting a culture of impunity.
Factors At Play
The question now is, whether the Madhesi parties will parties will participate in the June 14 polls. While the official stand remains that there will be no participation till the demanded constitutional changes are bought about, there is a possibility that they will give in eventually.
The Indian ambassador in Nepal, Manjeev Singh Puri, is reported to have told the Madhesi leaders that they should participate. Apparently the Indian interest is in seeing that the NP-MC coalition is strengthened and the pro-Chinese CPN-UML is kept at bay.
If the CPN-UML does well in the second phase also, its return to power at the national level cannot be ruled out given the lackluster performance of the NP-MC coalition regime. But it all hinges on whether the Madhesi parties participate or stay away.
As on date, the Madhesi party, Rashtriya Janata Party of Nepal (RJPN), is adamant about not taking part in the elections without the amendments, even if India asks it to participate.
“How can we go for elections without amendments, and make the sacrifices of so many Madhesi lives worthless?” asked RJPN leader B.K.Gupta.
However, at the end of the day, it is highly unlikely that the RJPN will ignore India’s advice. Some Madhesi parties are already in the electoral fray. The Federal Socialist Forum Nepal (FSFN), a Terai-centric party, took part in the first phase polls, and is preparing for the second one.
(The featured picture above shows Nepalese villagers queuing up to vote in the May 14, local level elections)