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Elections

'Elections are the only way forward in Nepal'

Despite recent calls to boycott the upcoming elections in Nepal, analyst Sagar Prasai says the Himalayan nation will go ahead with the poll on November 19, as many Nepalese have put their hopes of stability on the vote.

On November 19, some 12 million voters in Nepal will get the opportunity to elect the country's new parliament. The body is also expected to be a constitution-drafting body, after the first Constituent Assembly failed to reach a consensus.

More than 100 parties, including three major ones - the Unified Marxist-Leninist, the Nepali Congress and the Maoists are fielding candidates to the country's second national poll since a 10-year civil war ended in 2006. In a DW interview, Sagar Prasai, the Asia Foundation's deputy representative in Nepal, says that despite the recent boycott threats and outbreak of violence, the polls are likely to go ahead as planned.

DW: How would you describe the political situation in the country ahead of the poll?

Sagar Prasai: This Constituent Assembly (CA) election comes after the earlier CA failed to deliver a constitution. The lack of political convergence on key issues such as forms of government and models of federalism still persists among Nepali political parties and some of the more radical forces have chosen not to participate in this election citing political differences with major parties.

Sagar Prasai, Deputy Country Representative The Asia Foundation, Nepal,
(Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Prasai: 'This election will provide a fresh mandate to form a new government'

Subsequently, those groups opposing the election have been actively running campaigns to disrupt the poll. Some of the tactics employed are violent and that may dampen voter enthusiasm. Overall, though, the country is likely to go into an election with adequate turnout and the election is likely to send political parties with a fresh mandate to draft the new constitution.

How important are the upcoming parliamentary elections to the young democracy?

Since the earlier CA was dissolved without delivering a constitution, an election is the only way forward to establish governing legitimacy in the country. This election will provide a fresh mandate to form a new government and restart the drafting process. In that respect, there is no alternative to the coming election and the people of Nepal have pitched their hopes of stability in this election.

Who are the main political contestants in the upcoming poll and what do they stand for?

There are four major political forces in the fray. The Maoists have come out of a decade-long insurgency promising their followers radical changes. Since joining open politics in 2006, they have moderated their stances, but their campaign headline still advocates a restructured Nepali state with a more powerful executive, federalized structure of governance and deeper inclusion policies.

The older parties from both center (Nepali Congress) and center-left (Unified Marxist Leninists) view the Maoist agenda with skepticism and see them advocating an orthodox communist state best suited for single party dominance. For their part, their platform advocates a stable liberal democracy with some commitment to promoting inclusion.

Then there are regional parties. In the Southern belt of Nepal bordering India ethnic Madhesi parties want to see Nepal federalized in a manner that provides a sense of meaningful self-governance. Along similar lines, long-marginalized ethnic groups, particularly in the East, seek a federalization that restores political recognition of major ethnic groups in the Himalayan nation. Finally, there are Hindu nationalists and monarchists who, although small in number, are opposed to any radical restructuring of the pre-2006 Nepali state.

It has been reported that some political parties are planning to boycott the elections. Is it likely that the vote could be delayed or scrapped altogether?

It is very unlikely for the election to be postponed at this stage; in a proverbial sense the genie is already out of the bottle. The reason why some parties are boycotting the election is that the caretaker government headed by the Chief Justice was essentially created by a four-party coalition. Even though the four-party coalition represented a majority in the previous CA, there was a deliberate denial of political space for smaller parties in the ruling coalition.

All political decisions surrounding the upcoming poll were taken by the four-party coalition and this exclusionary approach has made fringe parties and the Maoist splinter group, Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, skeptical of elections. That said, parties that currently oppose the election represent only a small fraction of the Nepali people.

What consequences could a period of prolonged political instability have on Nepal?

Nepal endured a decade-long insurgency (1996 - 2006) and a prolonged transition (1996 - 2013) without any sign of eventual political settlement in the making. However, throughout this period, the economy remained more or less stable. The delivery of essential services remained more or less functional and the country's gross domestic product expanded at an average rate of 3-4 percent.

Nevertheless, the cumulative loss from this period of stagnation is significant. More than two million young Nepali workers today are employed in the Gulf and East Asia. While the remittances sent by this pool of migrants pay the bills at home, the potential growth opportunities that could have been realized with an annual flow of about USD 4 billion in remittances were clearly lost. With increased political stability, the economy also stands to benefit from being geographically located between two of Asia's major economic engines - India and China.

How important is Nepal to regional powers such as China and India?

Nepal borders with China in the North and India in the South. As an economically weak state squished between two thriving economies, Nepal's future rests on its ability to manage its geopolitical bearings. For India and China, having a fragile state in their backyard has been a source of concern.

A member of Nepal's Armed Police Force (APF) stands guard in front of the ballot boxes kept at Election Commission (EC) premises, waiting to be distributed nation-wide, in Kathmandu October 23, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar)

'Nepal's future rests on its ability to manage its geopolitical bearings'

Nepal has historical, geopolitical and cultural affinities with India. Furthermore, New Delhi's rivalry with Beijing plays out in the strategic relationships that India has with Nepal.

The Himalayan nation also hosts a sizable number of Tibetan refugees and that is a matter of concern for China. In terms of trade and economic relations, Nepal has too small a market and too rudimentary a production base for its giant neighbors to pay serious attention to.

Sagar Prasai is the Asia Foundation's deputy representative in Nepal.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.