Public Cynicism May Spell End of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly

With only 13 days remaining in the term of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, public cynicism and inter-party bickering may prevent an extension of its term. The assembly originally held a two-year mandate that was extended last year in hopes of completing the body’s task of preparing a new constitution.

Dozens of contentious issues remain, and it is clear that they cannot be resolved by the May 28 deadline. The governing coalition comprising the Maoists and one faction of the center-left UML have proposed another one-year extension, but they may not be able to get it. Extending the assembly’s term would mean amending the interim constitution, and that requires a two-thirds plurality of the body.

The center-right Nepali Congress and the Madheshi bloc of southern representatives say they will not vote for an extension without substantial progress on dismantling the Maoist army, which has been languishing in camps since the 2006 peace agreement. The UML faction not backing the coalition is likely to join Congress and the Madeshis.

This would leave the coalition short of the necessary votes and cause a constitutional crisis. Prime Minister Khanal promises movement on the issue in time to satisfy the dissenting parties, but it is hard to see how he can accomplish that. The fundamental deadlock in Nepal today is Maoist unwillingness to give up the leverage that their army provides before promulgating a constitution and the demand of the center and right parties that the PLA be dismantled in advance of a new statute.

Polling released on Friday suggests that half of Nepalis want new elections if the assembly cannot be extended. Twenty-one percent want a body of experts to propose a new constitution, and another ten percent want to abandon the process and revert to the 1990 constitution, which defined Nepal as a parliamentary monarchy.

Many smaller parties, including all of the right and monarchist groups have already called for elections to a new assembly, even though there is little reason to believe that they would prevail. The main monarchist party polls only a two percent support base.

Fresh elections may not solve the country’s problems though. The same poll suggests that Nepalis place little faith in any of the parties. Congress garners support from 22 percent of respondents, the Maoists from 20 percent, and the UML from just over ten percent. In contrast, 40 percent of those questioned answered either “none of the above” or “don’t know.”

That reflects the deep cynicism here towards politics in general and the widespread distaste for all of the country’s leaders, who are perceived as corrupt and little concerned with the welfare of the nation or its citizens. Political instability, the constitutional deadlock and inflation topped the list of Nepali’s concerns, with little hope of immediate progress on any of them.

But surprisingly the poll shows that people remain upbeat, with a majority saying that health services, transport and education had improved in recent years. Reading between the lines, it is clear that people here care more about action than the final form of their constitution or government.