A New Democracy or a New Oligarchy?

Recent elections in Nepal may further entrench divisions that have stalled democratic progress for a decade.

Nepalese protesters gather during a demonstration against King Gyanedra?s Monarchy April 16, 2006 in Kathmandu, Nepal. Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Between May and September of this year, Nepal held its first local elections in twenty years. Soon, they will elect a new parliament and form new provincial councils, which were created after the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a federal republic in 2007–8.

The local elections unfolded in three stages: three of the seven new federal provinces voted on May 14, 2017; three more followed suit on June 14, and the last province went to the polls on September 18.

The turnout in all seven provinces was high, indicating the enthusiasm with which the Nepali electorate greeted this long overdue opportunity to make their views known to the parties and their candidates. The involvement of the Madhesi parties, which represent the people of Nepal’s southern plains, was particularly important, given their effective exclusion from power in Kathmandu.

On September 27, 2017, as most of the results from the last stage of voting had come in, UN General Secretary António Guteress congratulated Nepal on this major step forward. After years without an elected government at the local or national level, Nepalis regarded these elections as a potential break with the political stasis of the last ten years. But the results, which keep the same three major parties in power, show that the nation’s future remains uncertain.

The Erosion and Return of Democracy

In 1997, a year after the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN-M) launched their insurgency against the monarchy, new local district and village councils took office. Their terms of office ended in 2002, but no new elections were planned, nor were the incumbents’ mandates extended. The escalating conflict between the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and government forces, including the Armed Police and the Royal Nepalese Army, made elections a dangerous prospect, and neither side thought a vote would serve their interests.

In October 2002, King Gyanendra dissolved the national assembly, sacked the prime minister, and appointed his own government. Thanks to what was effectively a royal coup, Nepal had no elected government at either the local or national levels.

For the next four years, local government was conducted — to the extent that it could be — by officials appointed by the central government and the king, or by the Maoists where they held sway. By 2004, the rebels effectively controlled large swaths of the countryside, while government forces held the municipalities and district centers. The military made periodic forays into rural areas, including into the Maoist strongholds, but won little ground.

In February 2005, the king, despairing of his government’s inability to deal with the insurgency, intervened. He declared a state of emergency, severely restricted the media, banned political parties, and harassed, detained, and jailed many of their leaders, as well as the leaders of civil society and human rights organizations.

The foreign powers with an interest in Nepal — notably India, the United States, and the United Kingdom — had, until this point, supported the monarchy’s efforts to crush the Maoist rebellion, which they regarded as a terrorist threat. In 2005, however, the international community turned on the king and called on him to restore normality.

In an effort to grant his new regime some legitimacy, the king held municipal elections. But the main political parties boycotted the vote, and its results were widely regarded as fraudulent. The parties, which had generally supported the king against the Maoists, now formed a seven-party alliance in hopes of restoring some form of democracy to Nepal.

This alliance built support in most of the major towns, including Kathmandu, where they held pro-democratic rallies. Despite international pressure and some leaders’ efforts to construct a conservative alliance that would support a constitutional monarchy, the king refused to abandon his position as head of state.

Forced to decide which posed a greater threat to democracy, the king or the Maoists, the alliance eventually concluded that a ceasefire and peace agreement with the Maoists was the better of two bad options. After a flurry of negotiations, it came to terms with the rebels in November 2005.

The next April, the seven parties were involved in a mass people’s movement that forced the king to cede power and convinced the Maoists to participate in parliamentary democracy. That November, they signed a detailed Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The Maoists then joined the other parties to form an alliance that would bring about the return of democracy.

In 2007, an interim parliament and interim government, headed by veteran Nepali Congress party leader Girija Prasad Koirala, agreed not only that the king should go but that the monarchy should go as well, officially making Nepal a republic. They further decided to elect a Constituent Assembly, charged with drafting a new constitution, and to initiate a restructuring process to create a new government framework organized around new rural and municipal bodies.

In January and February, the Madhesi people rose up across the plains because they felt politically marginalized by mainstream politicians they regarded as “hill elites.” Their actions forced the alliance to recognize Madhesi interests in the new federal state.

Elections for the new Constituent Assembly took place in April 2008 with a mixed system of proportional representation and first-past-the-post races. To the surprise of most commentators — and the revolutionaries themselves — the Maoists won the most seats (229 out of 601), nearly twice the number the Nepali Congress party claimed (115). The United Marxist-Leninist party (UML) came third, with 108 seats.

The two major Madhesi parties — the Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum Nepal and the Terai-Madhesh Loktantrik Party — secured only seventy-five seats between them.

With some 40 percent of the assembly, the Maoists could drive forward significant change. The newly elected assembly voted that Nepal would become a federal secular republic, and, after considerable maneuvering between the various parties, it elected the Maoist leader, Comrade Prachanda, prime minister. For a short while, Nepal seemed ready to draft a new constitution and hold local and national elections within a new institutional framework.

A Stalled Assembly

A number of serious obstacles soon blocked the way. First, parliament couldn’t agree on how to define the new federal structure or identify the federal states and local constituencies. Relatedly, the various factions within Nepali society disagreed over what role regional, caste, and ethnic interests should play in this restructuring process.

For the next three years, the Maoists, who had changed their name to the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (UCPN [M]), the Nepali Congress, and the UML jockeyed for position under constant pressure from the Madhesi parties.

After a bruising clash with President Ram Baran Yadav, who belonged to the Nepali Congress party, over the appointment of the army chief of staff, Comrade Prachanda resigned, and the UML’s Madhav Kumar Nepal took over. The new prime minister led the interim government from May 29, 2009, to February 6, 2011, then gave way to another UML leader, Jhala Nath Khanal, who held the post for only six months until he handed control back over to the Maoists. Dr Baburam Bhattarai became prime minister on August 29, 2011.

During this tumultuous period, the government extended the Constituent Assembly’s term three times, until the Supreme Court set a fourth and final deadline: the assembly had to draft the constitution and establish the new federal framework by May 27, 2012.

When that day arrived with no new constitution, Bhattarai dissolved the house and announced elections for a second Constituent Assembly.

The November 2013 elections yielded significant change. The Nepali Congress party secured the largest number of seats (196 out of 575), and the UML finished in a close second (with 175). The Maoists came third, with only 80 seats — a loss of 149. Voters were punishing the Maoists for their ineffectiveness in government. Undoubtedly, many former supporters turned against the erstwhile revolutionaries for failing to make progress on the major economic and social reforms they had promised. The Maoists lost the substantial backing they had won over years of struggle, and now faced an existential crisis.

The party split into several different factions, with the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) remaining formally committed to parliamentary democracy. Several offshoots sought to regain their revolutionary credentials.

At the same time, the Nepali Congress party and the UML were fraught with internal struggles for power and influence. The Madhesi parties also split, having failed to break into the central nexus of political power and gain the recognition they felt they deserved.

Given this fractured political situation, the Constituent Assembly remained virtually powerless, and Nepal continued to suffer from an ineffective government and an incoherent vision for the country’s future. The interim government remained in place for a year, first under Bhattarai, then under a nonpartisan acting prime minster. On February 11, 2014, the elderly Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress party took over, but his health deteriorated, and, on October 12, 2015, the UML’s Khadga Prasad Oli replaced him.

In the meantime, in April and May 2015, a series of earthquakes devastated Nepal, damaging or destroying hundreds of thousands of buildings and leaving just as many people without homes, schools, health centers, transport infrastructure, or livelihoods. This disaster, followed by a particularly heavy monsoon that led to landslides and widespread flooding, had a debilitating effect on Nepali politics.

The second Constituent Assembly, held hostage by the major parties’ vested interests, proved no more effective than the first at identifying the new federal states and their constituent rural and urban subdivisions. This, combined with divisions within the government and even within the various parties, made progress towards the promised — and long-awaited — local and parliamentary elections difficult. Indeed, the assembly took until September 2015 to release a draft constitution, which proved highly contentious.

Eventually, in August 2016, Comrade Prachanda, now operating under his civilian name as Pushpa Kamal Dahal and serving as leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), became prime minister again. He announced that, even if the government had not finalized the precise definition of the new federal states, a Local Body Restructuring Commission (LBRC) would identify the constituencies for local elections over the coming months. New bodies would replace the existing structure of municipal-, village-, and district-level committees, and local elections would take place in the seven provinces that had been more or less defined.

New Framework for Elections

The LBRC then initiated a complex process of local engagement to establish a framework for elections. Considerable controversy surrounded these negotiations in almost all of the preexisting districts, village development committees, and municipalities as they determined the borders and names of new local bodies, both rural and urban.

At the beginning of January 2017, the LBRC proposed 719 new local bodies, divided into 6,553 wards, as the framework for the local elections, leaving a number of “autonomous special areas” to be decided later. One dissenting committee member remarked that the proposals did not adequately consider population in the two proposed Madhesi provinces or physical access in the hills and mountains. Despite this disagreement, the government and the Constituent Assembly approved the proposal.

Of the new local entities, 256 (35 percent) are in twenty districts across the Madhesi plains. Overall, the LBRC identified 462 village councils (rural areas), 241 municipalities (small towns), 12 sub-metropolitan centers (large towns), and 4 metropolitan areas (cities). According to the new constitution, these local bodies officially came into existence when the cabinet received the LBRC’s report and local media published it at the end of January 2017.

For both logistical and political reasons, the elections took place in three stages: the first, in 283 new local bodies in 34 districts in the central northern provinces on May 14, 2017. The 436 local bodies in provinces 1, 5, and 7 voted on June 14, and, finally, province number 2 went to the polls in September. The vote was delayed there because disagreements over the involvement of the Madhesi parties weren’t settled until June.

Across Nepal, the UML emerged as the big winner. This party has long been communist in name only: one faction even allied itself with the monarchy during the People’s War. This party has the strongest base in the hill areas and has often opposed Madhesi claims. Unsurprisingly, the UML performed significantly less well on the plains than elsewhere, but it nevertheless won more positions in all categories than its closest rival, the Nepali Congress.

The Nepali Congress had not performed as well as it had hoped in the first two rounds, where it came a poor second to the UML. It had anticipated a better showing on the plains, where Madhesi voters — particularly in province 2 — do not favor the UML. It did get better results there, but these gains were not sufficient to win overall, handing it second place in all categories.

The main Maoist party came a distant third, with fewer than half the number of positions secured by the Nepali Congress. Despite having managed to dominate the Constituent Assembly in 2008 and to elect two prime ministers between 2008 and 2013, the Maoists have now lost significant ground.

The Madhesi parties suffered thanks to disunity in the months leading up to the elections, but they performed best in province 2. However no single Madhesi party could rival the Nepali Congress, which easily won the province.

The UML performed better than expected and even managed to come fifth in province 2. The Maoists gained roughly the same number of positions as the Federal Socialist Forum. All of these parties owed their successes to specific localities. Former Maoist leader Bhattarai’s new party, Naya Shakti (New Force), whose agenda is not clear, and is mainly a personal following, barely made a showing at all.

These results, particularly in province 2, will have a major impact on Nepali politics. Local concerns played an important role in determining the elections’ outcomes, and they will not help heal the division between the hills, where the UML performed strongly, and the plains, where the various Madhesi parties proved unable to unite. Nor will it ease the tension between the UML and the Nepali Congress.

New coalitions will undoubtedly emerge as parties prepare for the parliamentary and provincial elections planned to take place soon. The UML and the Maoists first proposed an alliance, then a merger, ostensibly to counter the Nepali Congress but arguably also to ensure the Madhesis’ continued marginalization. The alliance included Naya Shakti (New Force), but the merger will probably involve only the two major parties, UML and the Maoist Centre.

It remains to be seen whether these local elections mark a new democratic era for Nepal or simply the birth of a new oligarchy and the continuation of the opportunistic politics that have characterized the past five years. What it does not mean — despite the parties’ names — is a genuine alliance of forces commitment to direly needed social and economic reforms.