Old Politics In Nepal Despite Election Mandate For Change

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Nepal’s old-guard politicians who were swept out of power in this month’s elections are trying to block a new Maoist-controlled government. They just might succeed, but only at the cost of wrecking the Constituent Assembly.

Nepal’s Maoists won a commanding election victory this month, taking more seats than their nearest two rivals combined. In return they expected to lead a new coalition government. This week, however, Nepali Congress leaders including Prime Minister Koirala, who had announced that he would resign from politics after the election, challenged the Maoists to unseat the current government.

The NC look ready to stay in charge until removed and have made several new demands from and arguments against Maoist leadership. Their move is backed by royalists and the army, who fear a Maoist-led government. The US is also reported to support keeping Koirala and the NC in control: The PM says that “a section of the international community want me to continue.”

Civic groups and newspaper editorials have challenged the ethics of a soundly-defeated party refusing to yield, but the abstract argument matters little. Nepal’s interim constitution requires a consensus government or, failing that, a government with a two-thirds majority. (That also means that a standing government can only be removed by a two-thirds vote.)

A quick look at the electoral math suggests that the NC might succeed in blocking the Maoists, but only at the cost of wrecking the Constituent Assembly.

Any coalition must have, first, a simple majority: 301 seats out of the 601-member assembly. By previous agreement, the monarchy can be abolished by that vote, and most legislative activity – the assembly will also serve as parliament – will also require only a majority.

The Maoists are best placed to reach that mark. They hold 220 seats directly and can count on another 35 or so seats from other left parties. The remaining 45 seats could come from an alliance with the MJF (52 seats), who have said they will support any government that will push their demand for autonomy in southern Nepal.

Or the Maoists could align with the UML (103 seats) or with a faction of that party. There are already reports of district-level UML leaders resigning and joining the Maoists. The UML has demanded that the the Maoists demobilize the YCL, their militia, as a price for cooperation, but consistency has never before stood in the way of expediency for the party.

Congress’s hope of a majority would come from an NC – UML coalition plus the MJF and all of the royalist and center-right parties. It’s not clear whether that formula musters a bare majority or falls just short. But even without the MJF and others, the two old parties could block a Maoist government.

Secondly, in the absence of consensus, any coalition must be able to muster a plurality of two-thirds (401 votes) to form a stable government and, ultimately, to ratify a constitution.

A Maoist-plus-allies – UML – MJF coalition would do. A coalition without the MJF but with the support of other Terai and ethnic parties might just just reach 401 votes too.

But the Maoists’ 220 votes absolutely prevent an NC-based coalition from reaching plurality. The NC can’t form a stable government, but their fear that they and their allies could never dislodge a Maoist government drives their desperate bid to hold on to power. What little remains of the party’s reputation is a likely casualty, even if they prevail.

Forming a new government will be a bitter battle over the next few weeks, and the 26 appointed CA seats will be key. (There are 575 elected seats and 26 appointed ones.) The appointed seats were originally intended to ensure minority representation, but they will now certainly become bargaining chips.

But whose chips to hand out? The interim constitution says that the appointed members will be “nominated by the interim Council of Ministers, on the basis of consensus.” Koirala and the NC will assume that the current cabinet appoints them. The Maoists will argue that a new government, reflecting the election results, should allocate the 26 seats.

This is the Maoists’ first big test. If they can assemble a plurality with other left and ethnic parties, they won’t need the Nepali Congress or the royalists. Congress’ only option is to play the spoiler. The risk is that they may spoil not only a Maoist electoral government but also the assembly.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.