As soon as the Constituent Assembly’s Questionnaire Committee submitted its report to chairman of the Constituent Assembly (CA) on 9 February, the possibility of promulgation of the new constitution through broader participation of major political parties has come to an end.
If the constitution is promulgated on the insistence of Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, it is likely be a one-sided constitution, devoid of any support of broader stakeholders.
Although Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has issued a statement calling on the opposition parties to come for talks and work to bring the statute together, his ruling alliance in the CA has chosen a confrontational course, completing the preparation of questionnaire without involvement of the opposition UCPN-Maoist and its allies.
After RPP-Nepal walked out from the CA Questionnaire Committee, the committee is virtually monopolized by the two ruling parties, making the efforts one sided.
However, given the thin margin of a two thirds majority in Constituent Assembly, even the absence of dozens of CA members can change the game. One cannot rule out the possibility of the CA voting seeing the absence of the members of the ruling parties.
According to CA regulations, parties cannot issue a whip to its members while voting in the CA. Even senior NC leaders are critical over the current process. "It is unfortunate that the constitution writing process is moving without the major stakeholders of CA,” said Nepali Congress leader and CA member Dr. Shekhar Koirala. " There is the need to take certain drastic moves to involve UCPN-Maoist led alliance in the constitution writing process.”
Although the voice of dissent within the ruling alliance is thin, it is prone to get louder. Nepal has a very bitter history of how thinner voices of dissent could bring down the governments. In 1995, a Nepali Congress majority government led by Giriaja Prasad Koirala collapsed. Similarly, Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government fell in 1998 when two MPs remained absent at the time of voting.
Move and Counter Move
Amid souring relations between the ruling and opposition parties over the ongoing constitution-drafting process, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has appealed to the agitating alliance led by the UCPN -Maoist to come forward for talks to jointly bring the new statute.
“Let us start meaningful talks without further delay to forge necessary consensus and understanding and actively engage in the constitution-drafting process so that we, the partners of the peace process and democratic movement, can promulgate the new statute together, keeping in view our responsibility towards nation and people,” said prime minister Koirala in his latest appeal.
The prime minister urged the opposition parties, including the Maoists and the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF), to initiate talks and reach consensus starting from the point they had reached on January 19 regarding the various contentious issues of the new statute.
However, UCPN Maoist termed Prime Minister Koirala’s statement as ´unclear´ and ´abstract”. Similarly Madhes-based parties see the appeal as vague and ambiguous.
Prime Minister Koirala issued the appeal in the wake of the opposition parties' launching of a series of protests against what they say is the attempt of the ruling parties to promulgate a new statute on the basis of a majority in the Constituent Assembly (CA).
The opposition parties have been boycotting all CA meetings after the ruling parties on January 25 pushed for a majoritarian course. The opposition earlier vowed not to hold any talks with the ruling parties until the ongoing majoritarian process was withdrawn.
On the other hand, Sadbhavana Party chairman Rajendra Mahato opined that the letter from the PM could be a ploy to diffuse the protest programs of the opposition alliance.
“We cannot sit for dialogue with the ruling coalition on the basis of a letter, which is vague and ambiguous,” said Rajendra Mahato, chairman of Sadbhavana Party. “We have already set our conditions for dialogue with the ruling coalition. Unless and until the ruling coalition is ready to draft a consensus-based constitution and dissolve the questionnaire committee, we cannot sit for talks,”
Mahato said: “We cannot sit for talks just to listen to the nonsense of KP Oli (the CPN-UML chairman) and Sushil Koirala.”
With the pressure from International Community, ruling and opposition parties have taken a move to patch up differences. However, the announcement of CA chair Subas Nembang that the CA will take its course if no consensus is had by February 12 has pushed the situation towards greater complications.
"I urge the political leadership to make maximum use of the remaining days to settle the disputes through understanding and I stress that the consensus course is still our priority," said Nembang receiving the report of the questionnaire committee at Singha Durbar. "But if there is no consensus, the CA process will be taken ahead based on the provisions of constitution, CA regulations and its established practices."
Nembang claimed: "The questionnaire committee has laid strong grounds for consensus. At the same time, this can also be a basis to begin CA´s own course. Completion of the task of questionnaire committee has helped the CA to take a concrete and clear direction with regard to the constitution making process."
The CA´s proposal drafting committee, which was entrusted to convert the constitution-making disputes into questionnaire in an objective format, has prepared a total of 232 questions.
Although various efforts have been underway to bring political forces to the table, they are all going in vain. Despite efforts of president Dr. Ram Baran Yadav and international community, the ruling and opposition sides are yet to show some sort of flexibility in their stands.
As ruling parties are insisting on voting process and simultaneous negotiation and UCPN-Maoist led alliance demands no negotiation without suspending the entire voting plans, the imbroglio is likely to push the country into a chaotic situation.
In 2005, rejection by King Gyanendra to withhold the local elections pushed Nepali Congress and CPN-UML at the hand of CPN-Maoist through 12 point New Delhi agreement. One cannot rule out the possibility of UCPN-Maoist leading another broader left and right alliance to isolate Nepali Congress and CPN-UML.
Dr. Baburam Bhattarai's statement that King is better than Nepali Congress and CPN-UML hints at the possibility of making an alliance in the future in case of widening differences.
As the situation is heading towards a point of no return, opposition parties may go to put pressure on ruling parties to any extent through the street protests. There is also a report that CA members representing UCPN-Maoist alliance are tendering mass resignations from the CA. In case the UCPN-Maoist led alliance members take this move, RPP-Nepal, which has already announced not to take part in the CA, will follow them.
As two major Maoist factions CPN-Maoist led by Mohan Vaidya and Biplab have made it clear that they will join the opposition alliance in case of mass resignation, the political scenario is sure to be more chaotic.
In the words of chairman of RPP-Nepal and former home minister Kamal Thapa, once parties jump to streets, everything can be possible, including a mass unrest, given the scarcity of gas and essential commodities.
Political parties will have to take a decision whether they want a piece of constitution or a constitution with a broader consensus. If political parties want to have a consensus with broader understanding, they must be prepared for a give and take. The solution is not to promulgate a majority constitution or consensus but a constitution with broader acceptability, by including concerns of Nepal’s neighbors.
Given Nepal’s own political geostrategic situation and divided house, however, it is unlikely that political stability will return here any time soon.