Elections in Nepal: a step towards peace?

Tomorrow, on Tuesday 19 November, Nepal is going to the polls to elect its second Constituent Assembly.

After long political negotiations, Nepal’s major political parties – with significant financial support from the international community – have managed to prepare the country for elections. The 601 new members of the assembly (240 directly elected, 335 from proportional representatives and 26 nominated by the cabinet) will be responsible for completing a fundamental task in Nepal’s peace process: drafting and ratifying Nepal’s first constitution since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006.

The first Constituent Assembly was dissolved in May 2012 when its members were unable to find consensus on a new constitution. This is therefore Nepal’s second chance to move towards long-term peace.

On Tuesday the government will open its more than 10,000 polling stations across the country, with over 76,000 national and international observers overseeing the process. A four-day national holiday has been declared by the government from 17-20 November to facilitate the election process; a ban on political campaigning started 72 hours before the polling stations open to allow the voters a time of reflection before casting their vote; and the country’s borders with neighbouring countries have been closed.

While many have worked hard to get to this day, some have tried their best to prevent these elections from taking place. A coalition of 33 opposition parties has called for a boycott of the process and the dissolution of the current government. There have been threats to physically stop voters from casting their votes or candidates from campaigning. Bandhas (general strikes) have been enforced across the country. While the use of improvised explosive devices and petrol bombs have been used to target those who have not heeded the threats. All of this has overshadowed the lead up to this important day.

In an effort to bulk up security across the country, the government has mobilised the Nepali army and police, deploying a total of 155,000 personnel throughout the country, as per its Integrated Security Plan. Although a peace agreement was signed more than seven years ago, Nepal is therefore still clearly dealing with internal disagreements and a population that is not yet confident in the state’s ability to protect them.

Elections are always an important opportunity for people to raise their voices – frequently in disagreement – and the constitution writing process will once again bring up some deeply contentious and dividing issues amongst the people of Nepal, testing their leaders’ commitment and ability to navigate these issues in a peaceful manner.

The success of this week’s election will largely depend on how the state and the major political parties handle these dissenting voices during the post-election period. Whether they are included or excluded in the constitution drafting and in making decisions on delicate issues such as federalism and the form of government, could have long-term implications for peace in Nepal. Exclusion has the potential to sow the seed for another round of conflict in Nepal.

This election is therefore only one step among many remaining that can bring Nepal’s people closer to the peace for which they have long called.