Constitution Amendment Wrong Prioritisation

 

 

Dr. Narad Bharadwaj

 

The government’s correspondence to the Election Commission instructing the latter to prepare for holding local elections has come as a flicker of light on the other side of a long dark tunnel.  But its insistence to take forward incompatible issues like election and constitution amendment as parallel agendas still risks making its commitment to election no more than a lip service. 

Electoral preparation

On the basis of the government’s correspondence, the Election Commission has proposed the government to hold the local polls in two phases, tentatively on May 15 and June 3, 2017. The Election Commission has also sought clarification on other issues like handing over the Local Body Restructuring Commission’s (LBRC) report to the Election Commission and the allocation of budget for electoral preparation.

Strangely, the government has been sitting on the LBRC report in total disregard for the urgency of the situation.  Without this report, the Election Commission cannot fix voting booths, manage ballot papers, design voters’ identity card and to meet host of other technicalities indispensable for the election. With only about eleven months left for accomplishing the election, the slow movement of the government can by no means be justified.

The indifference being shown towards giving momentum to the task of preparing election indicates that it has failed to realise the gravity of political crisis that awaits us if we fail to accomplish the three tiers of election by January 21, 2018.

 The present coalition government seemed to have committed a great judgmental error in fixing hierarchy of priority between election and constitutional amendment.  Registration of the constitution amendment bill in the parliament being unmindful of the fact that it was controversial and the main opposition, without whose vote there was no possibility of garnering two-third majority in the parliament, was vehemently a wrong political move.  As was proved later in the spontaneous agitation with participation of hundreds of thousands of people in No. 5 Province, the constitutional amendment did not reflect the sentiments of the people either. The most disconcerting part of the registration of the constitution amendment bill was that it carried an overtone of external pressure.  

The coalition partners were adequately cautioned against moving along adventurist way of dealing with political differences.  But they refused to correct their priority even after the disruption of the parliamentary proceeding for a whole month.  The coalition government appeared oblivious that the amendment of the constitution could wait, but failure to hold the local, provincial and national elections by the above mentioned date would spell a disaster.

The constitution was subjected to amendment in less than six months even thought it was promulgated with the endorsement of 92 percent of the Constituent Assembly members and enjoyed highest conceivable legitimacy. Those demanding for the amendment of the constitution represented only 8 percent of the 601-member Constituent Assembly. In such situation rushing ahead for the second amendment on issues which were not likely to get universal acceptance was a  blunder. 

No constitution of the world has been found perfect. In that sense Nepal’s constitution too cannot be above impeachment.   But an amendment is possible only when it reflects majority view and is not likely to divide communities.   The amendment which has been proposed can neither reflect broad consensus nor does it consolidate national integration.  The amendment proposal has no cohesive elements. Even the Madhes-based forces in whose demand the amendment has been proposed are not ready to own it even if it is endorsed in the present form. In such situation insisting on amendment of the constitution pushing more urgent issue of election to the sideline will be to betray the people and dragging the country to conflict.

  The constitution amendment proposal has not caught people’s imagination for fear of the ruling coalition bringing into play all the unethical and unscrupulous methods of buying votes and tempting opposition MPs to cross the floor in their bid to garner two thirds majority. 

The political transition of Nepal is at a crossroads. It is for the ruling coalition to decide whether to bend rules and facilitate restoration of authoritarianism or to cling to democratic electoral process as an unfailing tool for rectifying the shortcomings and inadequacies of democracy.

 It is time for them to realise that failure to amend the constitution will not lead to an immediate political crisis of any kind. But the country will immediately plunge into unimaginable political vortex if it fails to hold the elections in all the three echelons of representative bodies.  If we fail to elect a new parliament by January 21, 2018, the constitutional legitimacy will not be established, there will be no parliament, and it will pave the way for ushering in authoritarianism in the country in the absence of elected government and a state of anarchy will descend in the country like a nemesis.

 The present coalition was formed with a clearly defined goal of holding three tiers of election by  January 21, 2018. There was a gentleman’s agreement between Nepali Congress and CPN (Maoist Center) to share the responsibility for holding local and national elections. The local election was supposed to be held under the premiership of Puspa Kamal Dahal (Prachand) and the national level election was supposed to be held under the premiership of Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba.

  If the ruling parties had stuck to their terms of reference (ToR) without dragging controversial issue of constitution amendment until the elections were held, the present situation of stalemate would not have arisen.  Unfortunately, however, the issue of constitutional amendment has disrupted the otherwise smooth post-constitutional transition.

What the present coalition partners do not appear to understand is that election would be the shortest and safest road to accomplish implementation of the constitution putting a logical end to the ongoing transition. With duly elected local and provincial bodies in place and legitimate parliament ready to exercise people’s sovereignty, any crisis or complex turn of events could have been tackled.

By indulging in a costly political adventure,  the ruling coalition  is not only deepening political polarisation in the country, it  also runs the risk of failing to achieve the objectives which were set for the six-month tenure of Prachanda’s premiership.  With its own awkward moves, the present government has found itself between a devil and the deep sea. It can free itself from the predicament only if it decides to go for election as demanded by the opposition and the majority of the population of the country.

Lack of support for the constitution amendment bill also stems from its external connection.  Even a man in the street now knows that external powers have their stake in the amendment of the constitution.  The scale of intervention can be judged by the fact that even Nepali Congress President admitted earlier this week that there was an external pressure on him against going for election before constitutional amendment.

In  view of the present situation, people are suspicious whether the coalition government’s  insistence  on  endorsing the bill  in spite of the opposition of the large population  is inspired  by a desire to  please foreign powers and their proxies at home  rather than doing what would serve to consolidate democratic institutions in the country.

At the dock of history

The ruling coalition has already squandered a lot of time in inaction, indecision and wrong prioritisation.  The time is fast running out for the coalition partners to prove the rationale of their being at the helm of the state in such a critical juncture of history as non-performers.  If they   want to make use of a short span of time they still have at their disposal, they should free themselves from the obsession of constitutional amendment and set about holding election.  Otherwise they might one day find themselves at the dock of history accused of interfering with democratic norms and values, paving the way for resurgence of counter revolutionary forces.

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