“NC-UML must engage in a new discourse”
With the announcement of elections for Nepal’s second Constituent Assembly (mandated to write a constitution), election constituency Kathmandu-4 was in the spotlight – charismatic youth leader Gagan Thapa (Nepali Congress) going head-to-head with Nanda Kishore Pun (“Pasang”), the erstwhile commander of the People’s Liberation Army (UCPN-Maoist). Despite controversy leading up to the vote, the result was a landslide victory for Gagan Thapa. Translated excerpts from a conversation with Kantipur’s Sudheer Sharma and Rajaram Gautam follow (with some changes to account for the poll results):
How do you feel, now that you have won by over 50% of the ballots cast?
As a candidate, I was sure of victory. The assurance I received from the constituency during the campaign further increased my confidence. But I often said to my supporters – the likes of Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Sushil Koirala have lost in previous elections, so we must continue to work hard. We campaigned with determination and the result was satisfactory.
There are two aspects to this (my victory). First, I did not only receive the votes of Nepali Congress (NC) supporters. Several supporters and well-wishers from other parties told me that they voted for me as they wished to see me in the Constituent Assembly (CA), despite the differing priorities of their own party. I must respect that. Next, many voters have expressed high hopes for me. But if I am unable to convert that hope into trust then it will erode away. I can’t get ahead of myself because I received the vote of the majority. That’s why I view my victory both with satisfaction and as a challenge.
Your opponent Nanda Kishore Pun of UCPN(Maoist) has claimed that the elections were rigged.
UCPN(Maoist) is allowed to raise questions about any aspect of the electoral process while abiding by the rules. Everyone has the right to prove his or her claims from within the boundaries of the process, instead of threatening to abandon and boycott the process itself. But these claims are childish, who is going to believe them?
Did you expect NC and UML to emerge so much stronger than UCPN(Maoist)?
Let us look at the election trend post-1990: NC gained an easy majority in 1991, UML was ahead in 1994, and NC emerged victorious again in 1999. Since they were a new power, the Maoists emerged victorious in the 2008 CA elections. This indicates that the Nepali voter is conscious of whom to award and whom to punish. This also shows that the votes won today aren’t permanent. Each party has its staunch supporters and those voters may always support the party. But the majority of the voters do no support any particular party, they fluctuate. In the previous election votes that used to go towards NC or UML went to the Maoists. Perhaps in some places people were coerced to vote for the Maoists but many people voted willingly because they thought the Maoists could be a vehicle for change. But those votes were not permanently allotted to the Maoists.
Why did the votes return to NC-UML?
There are three reasons for this. First, it’s a rejection of the position taken by the Maoists over the last four years on discussions regarding the type of constitution, society and politics for Nepal. The ideas of the Maoists did not represent the views of the electorate who voted for them. This applies to the Madhesi parties as well. The votes of those who previously voted for the Maoists and the Madhesis have returned to NC-UML. Second, for the general voter, good governance is an important issue. The electorate is now able to see what the new parties have done for good governance and where they have been unsuccessful. The new parties told the public that there are other reasons they should vote for them, ignoring the public’s desire for good governance. Third, the division of the party. When NC split it was crushed, UML lost the elections after it split and UCPN(Maoist) thought they would get away with a small scratch. The split must have had an impact. The same applies to the Madhesi parties.
The failure of the first CA was a collective failure of Nepal’s political leadership: why has UCPN(Maoist) borne the greater blame for it?
Those who voted for the Maoists in 2008 did not endorse the ‘People’s War’. UCPN(Maoist), which is one of the parties advocating change, joined peaceful politics and received votes on the basis of the belief that its leadership would be able to deliver. They joined the CA with that responsibility. The way UCPN(Maoist) presented itself in the CA might have seemed apt to its workers from the conflict period but was not acceptable to the voters. There was the issue of federalism, and the ‘People’s Constitution’, perhaps. Thinking that their voters would simply support them on these issues was a mistake. The voters wanted change within the system of a democratic republic, not an alternative to it. In addition, it seems that good governance, personal behaviour and so on became a basis for selection. Since 1990, within the parliamentary system, there have been many instances of discordant power politics. The voters perhaps hoped that the new power would put an end to this. That’s why the voters placed greater blame on the Maoists.
How will the new balance of power within the CA affect the issues raised during the previous process of constitution writing?
The shift in power will not affect the issues raised previously, if we take them up from where we left off. Regardless of how UCPN (Maoist) presented itself at the inception of the CA, by the time the body was dissolved their position was more or less similar to NC-UML’s. The issues we were most deadlocked on were federalism and the form of governance. NC and UML hold differing positions on the form of governance as well. If we had held the same view, perhaps this issue would have been resolved as well but now we need to negotiate on this. NC and UML hold the same view on federalism so the debate within the CA may be able to go in the direction these two parties want. For this election, NC and UML clearly presented their views on federalism to the public. The voters have already endorsed this view and to now claim that the public is not supportive of the form of federalism proposed by NC-UML would be strong-arm tactics.
Does this mean that NC-UML’s view that single ethnicity-based federalism should not be pursued has been endorsed? Or is there an agreement to not pursue federalism at all?
It would be a betrayal to say that federalism should not be pursued. There must be some people who feel that way, both among the voters and the candidates. But the truth is, NC-UML campaigned on the basis that single ethnicity-based federalism should not be pursued. I think NC-UML should demystify the issues around federalism. Society is vertically divided on the issue of federalism. NC and UML have a difference of opinion regarding the form of governance but I don’t think the voters considered this disagreement seriously when casting their ballots. The way in which the issue of federalism is deadlocked, it would be just a repeat of UCPN(Maoist)’s previous behaviour if we were to say that the decision must be made based on the wishes of the majority or the stronger power. It would not be appropriate to try and use our majority to get our way. NC and UML should accept the responsibility of convincing the opposing powers, parties and society and negotiating with them. It is important to pursue this action within and outside the CA. It will take us towards a positive result.
Previously, in order to fulfil their political aims, the Maoists first spread the idea of ethnicity-based federalism and later, single ethnicity-based federalism. NC-UML formed their position on the basis of these ideas. The media, society and everyone else followed that discourse. I believe NC-UML, with their new responsibility, should change that discourse. The argument isn’t that we will not allow ethnicity-based federal states but that it is not possible to form ethnicity-based federal states, given the distribution of our population. The 11 federal states proposed by UCPN(Maoist) are not ethnicity-based. It is not a political disagreement; it is simply a geographical truth. Why is society divided over an issue that doesn’t even exist? There are many challenging elements to be examined. There are those who feel that the federal states that were being created for them have been suppressed. There is another group that thinks that everything is being destroyed by emphasizing ethnicity. These are all products of the ideas perpetuated by UCPN(Maoist). We must amend this discourse.
While there are issues that could not be resolved in the previous CA, there are also those that have already been agreed upon. Does the CA that is currently being formed have to accept these decisions?
NC, UML and UCPN(Maoist) must all be faithful to their election manifestos. We all have an understanding to present a proposal at the first meeting of CA-II to endorse the issues agreed upon by the dissolved CA. There might be disagreements on which issues to present and how far back to go.
There might be new powers in the second CA; RPP-N will be more powerful than before. Will the new power balance not affect the already-resolved issues?
We might have a situation where we will have to negotiate with RPP-N, if we are to assume that they will have a meaningful presence in the second CA. But if NC, UML and UCPN (M) are to stand together on issues, based on our numbers in the CA, we can reach an agreement.
Does that mean that NC, UML, UCPN(Maoist) are in agreement on the issues of the republic, federalism, secularism, etc.?
We have disagreements regarding the management of these topics. Rather than focus on each topic, the three parties have to stand together accepting the mandate of the People’s Movement of 2005/6 and the issues raised then, as well as the achievements made after the 12-point understanding was signed. These parties must not split in three different directions based on the election results.
Do you feel that the potential resurgence of the right could affect transformative issues?
If we take the “rise of the right” as a challenge and and unite to protect the achievements of the People’s Movement then there is an opportunity to institutionalize them. But if we choose to ignore the people’s mandate and take up positions according to our own convenience then it will give more space to such a resurgence.
UCPN(Maoist) has threatened to boycott the CA, claiming that the elections were rigged. Baidya’s party (which split from the Maoist party) boycotted the entire elections. How challenging is the road to the CA?
Once the CA is formed, the main issue shall be how NC-UML and other parties understand its mandate. We must not forget that the CA failed because UCPN(Maoist), as the stronger party, ignored the voices of NC-UML and the people’s mandate. NC-UML must not repeat the same mistakes.
It currently looks like UCPN(Maoist) intends to disrupt the CA process?
It’s an emotional response. Their defeat was unexpected and it has led to this outburst. After joining the democratic process, the citizen must be respected. The loss we suffered in 2008 was even more unexpected for us than UCPN(Maoist)’s defeat. We had never suffered such a defeat since the party’s establishment. So once UCPN(Maoist) accepts that victories and defeats are temporary, it will be easier for them to accept this. Also, they cannot escape the electoral process. There is no space for them outside of this.
If they refuse to join the CA must continue its work. Politics will be pushed towards conflict but the CA has no option but to proceed. The CA was necessary to avoid political conflict. If we devalue the CA and engage in conflict then everyone will have to pay the price for it.
Doesn’t this tendency to reject election results show the lack of maturity in our parties, democratic process and politicians?
Of course. If we are to consider the election results, we can see that the voters have matured and the democratic political process has regressed.
You have emerged as a powerful representative of the new generation, what kind of role are you hoping for?
I want to play a role in the CA. This time I was given the responsibility to write the party’s election manifesto. Since the first CA, I have continued to work with my focus on constitution writing. If I am given an important role in the CA, I believe I can play an influential part in bringing the process to a conclusion. Many of the issues within the CA are artificial, and I think they can be resolved through negotiation.
If offered, would you join the government?
The first priority is the CA. The current people’s mandate is also an assessment of our generation. Previously, I had the opportunity to be involved in the CA but when there is no space (to work) a proper evaluation cannot be made. To translate into trust the hope the people have placed in me, I will try to find a role within the CA or the government.
(translated by Shlesha Thapaliya)