Six years after peace process started in 2006 following a decade of armed conflict, Nepal is enmeshed in a suffocating political crisis. The belated inter-party efforts to deliver new constitution by the Supreme Court-set deadline could not lead to any positive outcome as the issue of state restructuring divided major political parties within and among themselves, leading to the demise of the Constituent Assembly (CA). As a way out from the current impasse, Maoist- led government has announced fresh CA election for 22 November 2012 which is not a desirable option.
That election represents a routine procedure in a democracy is not a point of contention. That election is useful tool to break political deadlock through fresh popular mandate is also beyond question. However, given the legacy of the epic failure of the expensively assembled CA to deliver new constitution and the disenchantment this has triggered among the people, call for the CA election has come as a national disgrace.
In addition to doubts if the election will be held within the stipulated time, there have been widespread concerns that the new CA might meet the same fate of the recently dissolved CA. It is not difficult at all to foresee that like old CA, new CA, if elected, will be a rubberstamp body at a mercy of political leaders better known for their double-talk and dilly-dallying.
Despite the rhetoric of the Maoist party about winning two-third majority in the new CA, it is unlikely that any party or an alliance will dominate the new CA. The growing-intra party divisions will further complicate the electoral equation. Even if a party or an alliance gets the magic number, it will still be difficult for them to impose their political agendas in the constitution as it is likely that the political forces with weaker presence in the CA will protest vehemently in coordination with the allied interest groups operating outside of the CA, thereby undermining not only the CA business, but also bringing the country to a standstill. The scenario thus is one of political stalemate, unabated competition for state power, massive exploitation of state coffers and the dangerous extension of the transition period.
In declaring the election without weighing the risk it may carry, Bhattarai government has taken an ill-advised step. Rather than jumping the gun on election with petty electoral politics in mind, government should have looked for other options. In light of the excessive division among the political parties on the forms of federalism that led to the demise of the CA, referendum, envisioned in the article 157 of the interim constitution of Nepal, is a better option than another CA which may turn out to be a yet another “white elephant”.
Referendum is the need of the hour also because federalism discourse is suffering from the dismissive tendencies of the political leaderships of interest groups and parties who conveniently ignore skeptical voices as supporting status-quo. This has prevented cool-headed, engaged discussion on the pros and cons of federalism and the various models proposed. For instant, there have been no adequate discussions on the economic cost of creating and sustaining the functioning states. Moreover, those demanding ethnic federalism have not given convincing answers on why and how offering ethnic states to handful of ethnic groups is workable in a country with more than hundred ethnic groups. Prominent public figures hailing from Janajati groups themselves have questioned this demand.
Thus, in order to provide opportunity for the silent majority of the population to have their say on an issue as critical as federalism, referendum should be considered as an option. Referendum can only provoke substantial discussion on the pros and cons of federalism and its different forms as those supporting or opposing certain measures will have the burden of convincing people through ideas and logics, rather than raw power of street protests, strikes and brinkmanship.
Considering the level of political awareness of the voters, questions for referendum could be drafted in a short, straight-forward and clear manner, while making it sure that they capture the major points of contention such as whether to go for federalism based on single ethnicity, multiple ethnicity or geography and economic viability; and the numbers of states to be created. Depending on the balance of response from the voters, innovative solutions could be developed to amicably address the disputes. The provision of simple majority or two-third majority for approval of any measures could also be endorsed.
Indeed, referendum could be carried out at regional or local levels to address inevitable disputes such as creation of the states, name of the states and the state borders. Referendum could also be usefully deployed to decide on the system of governance, another critical issue. Instead of the problematic mixed governance model that has been agreed by the political parties after spirited bargaining, people could choose between mixed model and directly elected executive prime-ministerial or executive presidential system through referendum.
This, of course, does not mean that organizing referendum is an easy task. Nevertheless, it is expected that by including key agendas of political parties and groups in the referendum and by binding all the political players with strict code of conduct, referendum could be undertaken.
It is thus important that civil society, youths, professionals, media, politicians and all those who are concerned about the sorry state of politics in Nepal do not accept CA election as a fait accompli. Instead of merely venting frustration on lawmakers and politicians, we can play constructive role by initiating and leading the campaign for referendum that will put people on the driver’s seat to decide on the future trajectory of the country when political parties and their leadership have failed to rise over their personal, factional, communal, and party interests to serve the broader interest of the country and the people. Referendum provides us with a best opportunity to transform the dysfunctional political culture in Nepal and make leaders accountable to the population.