A month after the automatic dissolution of the Constituent Assembly (CA), which was a major setback to the project of creating a new Nepal, there are few signs that the political leaders are on track to find a way out of the current constitutional vacuum. The prime minister has announced fresh CA election to be held in November; however, the Interim Constitution does not provide for it. Without removing the constitutional roadblocks, it is impossible to go for fresh polls. In order to make new elections legitimate he would need the proposals for constitutional amendment to be ratified by the President.
Unless there is political consensus, the president is unlikely to approve the requests made by PM Baburam Bhattarai that are outside the purview of the interim constitution. If the PM insists on holding elections without seeking consensus of parties, there is likely to be a tussle between the PM and the president. Nepali Congress, the country’s oldest party, has stepped up its campaign to remove the Maoist-Madhesi coalition led by PM and replace it with a national unity government.
Unfortunately, the parties seem to have forgotten even the first essential element of a democratic society — talking among the different segments of society as a means of establishing a common and just path forward. A number of proposals have been put forward to address the turmoil. Some advocate a revival of the defunct CA; others encourage President Ram Baran Yadav to act — even to take legislative power. There is no democratic basis for reviving a defunct VA and this is no time for Nepal to travel in reverse gear. On the other hand, looking to the president to end the deadlock will only intensify the political turmoil in the country. The role of the president must remain as a protector of democratic values according to established traditions and not an exerciser of power.
International experience suggests that there is no guarantee that a second CA would be any more likely to produce a constitution than the first. For a full democracy, power must lie with the people. The best way forward could be to hold election for a new House of Representatives (HR). On May 15, the four major parties agreed that in the future, the HR would consist of 171 elected through first past the post system and another 140 elected through proportional representation system.
As of now, the largest political parties have not been able to agree on a decision-making mechanism to propel the country out of the current chaos. While the government is proposing fresh polls as a way out, not everyone is on board. The main opposition parties should stop seeking Bhattarai’s resignation without offering any solution regarding the way forward.
The parties should first start discussions about a decision-making mechanism rather than advocating different ways of moving forward. The primary reason why parties should focus on a mechanism is that the reasons why the CA failed in the first place still stand. None of the major political parties have changed their stance regarding major political issues. Until the time that the parties agree on a new constitution or a new federal structure, it makes sense to keep on amending the interim constitution.
The first essential step for this is for Bhattarai to resign as soon as possible in order to make way for a government of national unity. His decision on May 27 to go for a new CA election failed both to demonstrate political maturity and to follow minimum democratic norms and procedures when deciding on a matter of such serious national interest.
There need not be a rush to hold an election just for the sake of it. First, the country needs a broad national consensus on the agenda for reform and on the responsibilities and functions of the future elected body. Alongside the parliamentary election, a separate ballot box can be used for a referendum on the most contentious issues before them such as federalism, the structuring of states and the system of governance.
A fresh mandate is a vital first step to bring the country quickly towards a political transition. “Politics as usual” will simply no longer work in Nepal, and the country cannot move now into reverse gear.
Sharma is a former professor of sociology, IIT Kanpur