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02/04/2008 | Nepal’s Election and Beyond

International Crisis Group Staff

Nepal’s peace process faces a crucial test this month. Elections for a Constituent Assembly (CA) are likely to go ahead on 10 April 2008 as scheduled but political unrest and violence could mar – or even derail – preparations, and the aftermath could bring turbulence.

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Nepal’s peace process faces a crucial test this month. Elections for a Constituent Assembly (CA) are likely to go ahead on 10 April 2008 as scheduled but political unrest and violence could mar – or even derail – preparations, and the aftermath could bring turbulence. Elections in a delicate post-conflict situation are never straightforward and Nepal has many possible flashpoints, not least that the two armies that fought the war remain intact, politically uncompromising and combat-ready. Once results are in, all political players must be prepared for a difficult period in which they will need to compromise to make the CA an effective body, extend the number of parties with a role in government and urgently tackle crucial issues left aside during the campaign, including security sector reform. The international community has an important election observation function and should listen to Nepal’s political and civil society groups in assessing the credibility of the process.

Successful elections for a CA charged with writing a new constitution and serving as an interim legislature would be a major step forward. It would be a psychological and concrete achievement for the political leadership after two failed attempts that would vindicate the sometimes controversial concessions made to recalcitrant groups, which made the peace process possible. It would also be welcomed by the international community. India wants a successful conclusion to the roadmap it was closely involved in designing, while credible elections would open the way to a significant scaling back of the UN role. Although underlying issues remain, holding the polls would signal the short-term success of the recent deals with protesting groups.

There are many positive signs. All parties moved quickly into campaign mode, nominating candidates and launching programs to attract voters. A vibrant media reporting news and offering critical scrutiny is narrowing the deficit in public awareness of the electoral system and party positions. Given the momentum, it would be hard for any major party to back out of the elections, although some, including the Maoists, are still wary of the process.

Nevertheless, major challenges remain. The campaign has been dogged by violence and intimidation. While the Maoists appear to have been responsible for most assaults on rival candidates, they have had eight of their party workers killed – a fact which the mainstream media has chosen to downplay. Public security has been dismal throughout the ceasefire, and armed groups in the lowlands have carried out killings, bombings and abductions and threatened further violence. The considerable technical challenges of holding an election have been exacerbated by a complex, nearly opaque parallel electoral system that involves three separate means of selecting members of the CA. The widely respected Election Commission, charged with managing all aspects of the exercise, has no experience of logistics. In previous elections, those, along with back-up security, were managed by the army, which the peace agreement has now largely confined to barracks.

The post-poll period will likely be difficult and dangerous. Under the best of circumstances, it will probably take three weeks to determine final results. Significant repolling is expected to be required in areas where there was violence or disruption on election day – adding weeks more to the schedule. There will certainly be appeals from losing parties, and public frustration at the delay in learning results may add to a tense atmosphere. Parties will trade allegations of fraud and violence. The behaviour of powerful losers will shape the immediate aftermath. Some, in particular the Maoists, may even be tempted to reject the entire election: the best possible results for them will not reflect their actual power on the ground (exercised through continuing parallel structures). Royalists cannot hope to gain enough seats to block the move towards a republic.

If the major political forces accept the results and move forward without severe confrontation and acrimony, the transition will be manageable. However, each step will present obstacles that demand maturity and cooperation from party leaders. The formation of a new unity government – which will need to include members beyond the current seven-party coalition – will prompt much haggling. The convening of the CA, whose first sitting must take place within three weeks of final poll results and which is set to discard the monarchy, will be even more problematic. Transitional arrangements are only vaguely covered by the Interim Constitution; how they work out in practice will depend on political compromise. Yet, the CA will have to deal with tough issues, including the drafting of the constitution and addressing security sector reform, federalism, the role of the monarchy, secularism and inclusiveness.

While attention has focused on the elections, there has been no progress on the fundamentals of the peace process. Many critical agreements have not been implemented, inter-party consensus and mutual trust are fragile, and the military ceasefire, which has held since April 2006, has yet to be transformed into structures for a sustainable peace. Public aspirations for peace and socio-economic reform remain high but are matched by scepticism towards political leaders. This is the best chance for politicians to redeem themselves.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the Government of Nepal:

1.  Improve security so as to ensure an environment conducive to free and fair elections on 10 April 2008 by:

(a)  providing solid guidance and political support to the Nepal Police and Armed Police Force, and training and deploying temporary police, ensuring they are non-partisan and carry out their duties with neutrality;

(b)  improving security arrangements for candidates and party campaign workers; and

(c)  basing all security plans on local community support and respect for human rights.

2.  Build on the agreements with protesting groups by:

(a)  implementing fully the agreements with the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) and the Federal Republican National Front;

(b)  pushing for negotiations with armed militant groups on an election ceasefire, while strengthening security in sensitive areas; and

(c)  encouraging moderate Madhesi leaders to use their influence to urge armed groups to drop plans to disrupt the polls.

3.  Guard against giving openings for Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Nepal Army (NA) militants to assert more influence over proceedings; clarify the code of conduct for both armies in the election period; and move urgently to begin discussions on security sector reform so the PLA has an incentive to remain in cantonments.

4.  Move beyond solely seven-party cooperation to involve all parties contesting the elections in discussions on security and the creation of a free and fair electoral environment.

5.  Keep working on other critical elements of the peace process and in particular:

(a)  implement the 23-point agreement and other accords; and

(b)  abide by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and ceasefire code of conduct.

To the Election Commission of Nepal:

6.  Enforce the election code of conduct strictly and impartially, maintaining pressure on all parties to cease intimidation and other malpractice, such as the widespread misuse of state resources for campaigning.

7.  Continue with voter education and other publicity efforts and in particular prepare the public for potentially slow announcements of results by increased publicity explaining the count procedure and realistic timeframes.

8.  Make plans for dealing rapidly with politically sensitive post-election appeals and repolling.

To National Election Observers:

9.  Carry out observation and reporting impartially and professionally, dismissing any observers who are linked to political parties and avoiding inflammatory assessments before and after the elections.

To the Media:

10.  Adhere to the standards set out in the election Code of Conduct and exercise responsibility in the accurate and impartial reporting of election-related violence.

To the Political Parties:

11.  Commit unambiguously to free and fair elections by:

(a)  promising to accept the results of a credible poll, whatever they may be;

(b)  abiding by the election code of conduct, including ceasing all violence and intimidation;

(c)  exercising restraint and responsibility in mobilising student and youth cadres for legitimate election campaigning, not as private security forces; and

(d)  educating voters about the electoral system.

12.  Prepare for the difficult post-election period by building cross-party consensus on managing the transition, including:

(a)  forging a minimum agreement on dealing with post-election recriminations and maintaining consensus on moving forward;

(b)  using formal procedures to resolve any complaints regarding the election process or results;

(c)  agreeing on the broad framework for negotiations to form a new government; and

(d)  clarifying and publicising the procedure by which pre-election agreements, including the implementation of a federal democratic republic at the CA’s first sitting, will be implemented.

13.  Build common ground on procedural issues such as the formation of CA committees and the division of business between the CA as a constitution-drafting body and as a legislature.

14.  Make clear commitments for public participation in the constitutional process.

To the International Community, in particular India, China, U.S., EU and UN:

15.  Election observers should:

(a)  publicise international electoral standards and the principal benchmarks by which they will assess the polls, as well as explain the consequences of failure to meet those standards and benchmarks;

(b)  coordinate their deployment to maximise coverage across the country and make the most of relatively small numbers; and

(c)  coordinate on main statements to avoid public confusion and achieve as much unity as possible on the overall assessment.

16.  Condemn all election-related violence, pressure all parties to abide by the code of conduct and encourage the Election Commission and security forces to use their powers in a non-partisan manner.

17.  Prepare for the post-election period by:

(a)  reminding all parties they must accept the outcome;

(b)  supporting the Election Commission, politically and practically, on any necessary repolling;

(c)  urging and supporting the formation of a power-sharing unity government; and

(d)  listening to judgments by Nepali political and civil society groups in assessing the credibility of the electoral process.

18.  Offer technical and financial assistance for establishing mechanisms to ensure meaningful public participation in the constitutional process and work to coordinate proposed training and orientation programs for CA members.

International Crisis Group (Organismo Internacional)

 

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