Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What Nepal needs to learn from Lanka

Alok Bansal is a security analyst currently working as research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), one of the oldest and largest Indian think tanks working on security issues. He has published books on 'Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.' His book on Balochistan is currently under publication.

The elections for the Constituent Assembly in Nepal scheduled for November 22 were postponed again as the Maoists insist that the state be declared a Republic and the elections be held on fully Proportional Representation (PR) system.

The interim parliament of Nepal recently passed these two resolutions, which were facilitated by Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) (CPN-UML), a constituent of the Seven Party Alliance, joining hand with the Maoists. The elections had earlier been postponed in June, and the renewed demands from Maoists and their threat to take to the streets to disrupt the elections if their demands were not met have forced yet another postponement.

While an overwhelming majority of Nepal’s population reportedly believes that the monarchy does not have any future in Nepal, there is disagreement over whether it should be abolished before or after the elections.

But the implementation of PR for the elections is a far much more complex issue, which has split in the Seven Parties Alliance. The elections were earlier scheduled to be held partially on the basis of PR and partly on first past the post constituency system like in India. The CPN (UML) has joined hands with the Maoists and threatened to seek a change in government if the resolutions are not implemented.

But according to the prime minister, the proposals require constitutional amendment and therefore a two third majority, which is only possible with the support of the largest political party in the parliament - Prime Minister Koirala’s Nepali Congress.

The genesis of the demand for PR lies in the fact that the parliamentary democracy that has existed in Nepal for last decade and a half has been highly flawed. By way of ‘gerrymandering’ (a form of redistricting in which electoral districts or constituency boundaries are manipulated for an electoral advantage) it gave disproportionately high representation to certain regions of the state while denying the people living in Terai Region their rightful share in governance.

Also Read: India must make Sri Lanka see reason

As a result the governments that were constituted did not adequately represent the Madhesis or the Hindi speaking residents of Terai, who constitute close to half the population of Nepal. Besides Madhesis, the people from lower end of the social spectrum in the hills as well as in Kathmandu valley, including Janjaatis also did not get adequate representation in parliament. By seeking proportionate representation, the Maoists are hoping to regain their lost vote bank in the Terai.

Of late, a number of Maoists from the Terai region led by Jay Krishna Goit and Jwala Singh broke ranks with the Maoists to form the Jantantrik Terai Mukti Morcha, and have been indulging in acts of violence to ostensibly espouse the cause of the Terai region. This led to considerable erosion of the Maoist influence in the Terai, which besides being the economic hub is also the granary of Nepal. Proportional representation will ensure that not only Madhesis but also other deprived sections of the society who are not in majority in any particular region will gain representation in the Constituent Assembly. This will ensure that in any future constitution, the rights of these hitherto deprived sections of the society are protected.

But while there may be some merit in seeking the PR system for the elections to the Constituent Assembly, its provision in perpetuity for parliamentary elections is fraught with dangers.

First, this will generally result in fractured mandate, as none of the political parties enjoys or is likely to enjoy over 50 per cent popular support, and consequently the governments are likely to be unstable. Second, in ethnically divided societies PR generally works much like a separate electorate. Hardline parties representing specific ethnic groups or communities invariably espouse extremist views and seek votes from the members of their own community. These political parties do not expect or seek any votes from across the ethnic or communal divide and as a result propagate hatred against other communities.

It might be relevant to examine the implications of PR in the case of Sri Lanka, the only South Asian country to have adopted it. In the ‘land of serendipity’, the promulgation of PR by President Jayawardhane in late seventies led to the aggravation of the ethnic divide and ultimately resulted in a full fledged ethnic strife. The PR ensured representation for hardline Sinhala political parties like Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which led to the hardening of Sinhala position. These parties which propagate Sinhala chauvinism would have been wiped off in a first past the post constituency based electoral system but as they are seeking votes from their community alone they tend to take as hardline a stance as possible and manage to get some votes across the country.

On the other end of the ethnic divide, the moderate Tamil political parties like Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) were slowly eliminated after PR was introduced and the hardline Tamil groups which were propped up by various militant groups emerged stronger.

Not only this, all genuine multi-ethnic political parties which had support bases cutting across the ethnic divide, like Sri Lanka Sam Samaja Party, were totally marginalised. As a result, three decades of PR has given Sri Lanka a totally divided polity where barring a miniscule elite there are absolutely no links between the two main ethnic groups and there is total absence of trust between the two communities. In every election the fringe parties on the extreme ends of the ethnic divide propagate and seek votes on a highly communal agenda and after the elections these parties hold mainstream political parties hostage to their own ideology. As a result despite an overwhelming majority of moderates, the state has not been able to bridge the ethnic divide.

Nepal has been facing violence in the Terai region since January and Madhesis have been protesting in thousands against perceived oppression by the Kathmandu elite. The intensity of their movement has caught the Nepali government off guard, with a number of militant groups emerging to espouse the Madhesi cause.

Since January, the ethnic divide between the hill people and Madhesis has been growing and the introduction of PR would make it permanent, as extremist Madhesi groups would gain at the cost of moderate leaders. Besides this, even communal as well as divisions along caste lines will get accentuated if PR is accepted as the norm for future parliamentary elections.

At the moment there is strong support for PR amongst the deprived sections of population but institutionalising it will make Nepal a den of instability. As it is years of conflict and turbulence have weakened all the institutions of state including the Army, and prolonged instability may be suicidal for the Himalayan State.

Alok Bansal is a Research Fellow at IDSA, New Delhi



Anonymous said...

Good article! Nepal should prevent ethnic polarisation which PR might accentuate

Rakesh said...

yo article ta ramro chha tar nepali neta le bujhnu paryo ni kuro ko churo, jasle jati lekhe pani yo neta le kehi bujhdian khali YCL ko bhasa bujh chha.
!Good article

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