Since the term of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) ended in May without the constitution being written, the new republic has been stuck in a political and constitutional deadlock. The government announced fresh elections for a new CA, but the opposition has made Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s resignation a pre-condition for any agreement. The interim constitution does not envisage a second CA poll, and the only way to amend the statute is through the use of special presidential powers which President Ram Baran Yadav has refused to exercise unless there is consensus. The President’s office has emphatically denied allegations that Dr. Yadav, a former Nepali Congress (NC) leader, has flirted with the idea of replacing the Prime Minister to break the impasse. This is reassuring, for any presidential adventurism will be unconstitutional and undemocratic, and would only deepen the political polarisation. It will radicalise the Maoists, who have met their peace process commitments by disbanding the People’s Liberation Army, and are staying within the confines of multi-party democracy. Party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Dr. Bhattarai have done so at the cost of a radical splinter group accusing them of ‘selling-out’. If the government is dismissed, it can only give ammunition to the ultra-left’s argument that the ‘peace and constitution’ line was a mistake. Any unilateral move by the President would also strengthen the royalists and extreme-right, who are questioning the legitimacy of the interim constitution.
President Yadav is, however, correct in pushing for consensus. Nepal’s political parties have acted irresponsibly by being immersed in short-term power games. They must strike a deal on four inter-related issues — how to preserve the work done by the old CA; new election dates; the election system; and the nature of the government. The final issue remains the trickiest, with both the Maoists and the NC claiming leadership. The core question, of course, is how to ensure a free and fair election and devise a power-sharing arrangement which does not give any side an opportunity to misuse the state apparatus. Several options are on the table — converting the present government into a national unity formation with key ministries, including home, given to the opposition parties; a government headed by a neutral figure and a political cabinet; an acceptable leader from a smaller party becoming Prime Minister. Even as they discuss the exact government composition, Nepal’s politicians should not squander away the gains of the 2006 movement only for leadership of an interim government with a brief tenure and limited mandate. A deal by November-end is essential to hold polls next spring, otherwise the impasse may continue till 2014. It is time to end the deadlock and go back to the people.