Nepal is hurtling swiftly towards a political cliff. Failing to find consensus with the opposition front, the ruling coalition has initiated the process of approving the new constitution by the two-thirds majority, as provided in the Interim Constitution. Angered by it, the front has walked away from the Constituent Assembly, spurned Prime Minister Sushil Koirala’s call for dialogue and hit the street. Confrontation is in the air.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal has warned that heads would be lacerated, limbs broken, vehicles destroyed, and life disrupted if the government follows the process. The ambitious opposition leader and Maoist chairman has refused to talk until the ruling parties scrap the process and commit to formulate the constitution only by consensus. The CA Speaker has already put the process on hold, but the government cannot commit to nullify a constitutional provision.
What is more, consensus is impossible to achieve. In CA, the fourth largest party wants to reinstate monarchy and restore Hinduism as state religion. Some parties are totally opposed to federalism. The CA members of the far western region, from across the parties, want a state touching China in the north and India in the south. Communist parties are uncompromising on secularism and republicanism. The two-thirds majority will be inevitable to resolve these differences.
Yet, there is nothing wrong for the front to bargain with the ruling coalition through peaceful and constitutional means. But Dahal’s incitement of violence is illegal, unethical and wrong and his demand for negating an Article of the Interim Constitution is unconstitutional. Maybe, this should not surprise anyone, because our leaders put themselves above the law, like our royal family did before 2008.
Anyway, the opposition protests are unlikely to draw broad public support. First, people are sick and tired of never-ending protests and mayhem and have no appetite for more. Second, the front’s demand — political control of the judiciary, proportional representation, executive presidency and ethnic states — do not resonate with the masses.
People abhor the idea of political control over the judiciary. They have no enthusiasm for the executive presidency and for Dahal to occupy it. According to a recent Tribhuvan University survey of 98 ethnic groups, only 22.4 percent people know about proportional representation and only 20.1 percent about federalism. Lacking issue-based public support, the opposition has played victim by accusing the ruling parties of flouting previous accords to win public sympathy.
But it is unlikely to take the front too far. Both sides have breached them. Actually, the Maoists were the first to break in 2008 the commitment to run the government and write the constitution by consensus, as contained in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and to walk away from the understanding on the contentious issues in the previous CA. The Madheshi parties have also departed from the “One Madhesh, One Pradesh” agreement.
That brings me to the confrontation, which will ruin both sides. Lacking spontaneous public support to its program, the front will be forced to hire paid professional protesters to show strength and encourage them to break shops, burn vehicles and prevent the sick from visiting hospitals to provoke police action, so it can accuse the government of using excessive force and breaching human rights and generate outrage at home and abroad. But it may prove counterproductive to the front.
The government will also be hurt by the protests, but not as much as the opposition. Whether it controls violence or not, it will be criticised . If it does not, the public will blame it for the dereliction of duty, the destruction of their property and the disruption of their life. If it does, it may result in injuries and even a loss of life. After the 22 January target to promulgate the document gone, the government has the luxury of time and number on its side. It still has nearly three and half years left to finish the task. If push comes to shove, it also has the two-thirds majority to approve the statute.
The only scenario in which the constitution would not be written by this CA is the break in the ruling coalition. It is probable but not possible. The coalition partners know that, if they do not deliver the statute, it would be suicidal for them. People will punish them in the next elections, as they had the Maoists last time, and reward the pro-monarchy and pro-Hindu forces. The rise of Kamal Thapa’s party in the last vote and the former king’s recent demand for a role too obvious to miss.
That means the achievements of the 2006 political change — republic, secularism, federalism — will be in jeopardy. To prevent this prospect, the ruling and opposition parties ought to demonstrate flexibility, seek further compromise, avoid confrontation, and produce a constitution quickly. If the standoff is allowed to continue, it will hurt both sides, but it will damage the Maoist-led front more.
Here is how. Pushed against the wall, the ruling coalition will adopt the constitution by resorting to the process, and swiftly call and handily win the next general election. But the opposition will have nothing to show but anger and disappointment and will have no level playing field for the next vote. Voters often support the leaders and parties that present hope, not despair.
Despite this possibility, the government should try its best to take the opposition on board so the constitution will be accepted by the broadest spectrum of political actors. At the same time, the opposition should not hold the train at the station forever simply because it may leave the station without taking some of its agendas on board. If one train leaves this time, there will another train coming in next five years. The Aam Admi Party — which has won 67 out of 70 seats in Delhi — shows that the next train could arrive pretty quickly.
Therefore, the opposition front should sit down for unconditional negotiation and seek agreement with the ruling parties, register its dissent on the areas of disagreement, let the constitution go forward, claim credit for it, and level the playing field for the next election. If they win the two-thirds majority next time, they can then amend the constitution as they like. They must not hold the constitution hostage and push the country over the cliff.