Two months after nationwide elections, Nepal’s politicians aren’t anywhere near to being ready for the opening meeting of the second Constituent Assembly. As usual political bickering is the problem.
As soon as the election results started to come in, the main Maoist party saw that it was going to take a drubbing and called foul, claiming that there had been fraud. To save face they demanded a special, extra-constitutional investigation and threatened to boycott the Assembly. Negotiations to garner Maoist participation in the body delayed certification of the results for weeks.
Then the second-largest party in the new Assembly, the UML, demanded a new election to the presidency. The interim constitution doesn’t have provision for a second assembly election because the first assembly was supposed to have written a new constitution, at which point the president’s term would have ended. Likewise, there is no provision for replacing the president, but the UML saw a chance to depose President Yadav, who is from the Nepali Congress party.
Whether the president could call the assembly’s first meeting or not became part of the issue, with his opponents favoring the acting head of the non-political election government instead. (That the UML had demanded his resignation before the polls and that he had no standing whatsoever posed no ethical problems for the party.)
The president’s status remains at issue, as does the all-important fight within the largest party, the Nepali Congress, for the prime minister’s seat. The weak party president, Sushil Koirala, probably has enough votes in the party’s central committee, but he risks breaking the party if he presses his candidacy too hard. The contender, three-time PM Sher Bahadur Deuba, has reportedly offered to concede the issue in return for the post of acting party president and a clear path to the top job at the next party election. Koirala is unwilling to budge, as that would weaken his already tenuous hold on the party.
Congress is deeply split by the two factions, but with the first meeting of the assembly planned for January 22nd they will have to choose a candidate soon.
But since Congress does not have a majority of seats, they will have to form a coalition. Building coalition governments routinely takes weeks or months in Nepal, and little or no progress has yet been made. Their most natural alliance would be with the UML, but the row over the presidency will have to be settled first. And top UML leaders will demand plum posts in any new government in return for their support for Congress.
To top it off, the assembly needs to appoint an additional 26 seats to complete the 601-member body. Those seats are intended to add diversity and fill gaps in representation of remote areas or under-served groups. But the seats are by custom allocated to the major parties in proportion to their election results, so there is enormous competition within the parties for the appointments, especially by leaders who were defeated at the polls.
It all adds up to delay after delay, caused by the politicians’ self-centeredness and an incredible lack of urgency about getting down to the business of writing a new constitution and governing the nation.
The parties all pledged during the election campaign to promulgate the new constitution within one year. But with two months gone before they even meet and perhaps another month before a government is formed, the promise of prompt action sounds hollow.
There are many constitutional issues that were decided by the first assembly, but most of them are contentious. Moderate assembly members favor blanket adoption of all previously settled matters, but there may be enough others who see possible partisan advantage in reopening discussions to defeat a motion to that effect.
Despite the one-year promises, the election statute gives this assembly four years to complete its work, and the members so far seem to be in no hurry at all.