The ‘politics of consensus’ in Nepal

The battle between consensus politics and majoritarian politics has not only brought Nepalese politics to a standstill, but has extended a turbulent political transition into an uncertain future. 

The phrase, ‘politics of consensus’ (PoC) may sound extremely positive. But it is rarely practiced in current competitive democratic systems throughout the world. In Nepal, it is regarded as a mantra relied upon to resolve the current political crisis. The ‘politics of consensus’ has therefore become both a panacea and a practise riven with contradictions, especially in those localities where consensus is undermined by one of the core values of democracy: ‘majority rule’. This is all the more problematic because of the constitutional vacuum, due to the dissolution of Constituent Assembly (CA) in June 2012, and subsequent problems in power sharing between the political parties.

The idea of a PoC was initiated in 2006 in the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) between former rebel-Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M, hereafter Maoists)  - and the government of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA), to end a decade long civil war. The preamble of Nepal’s Interim Constitution 2007 clearly stated that PoC is one of the core values binding political parties to work together to reconstruct a new Nepal. This is an attempt to circumvent confrontation between parties when it came to re-building a new peaceful and prosperous Nepal, irrespective of divided political ideologies.

Nepal was successful in pursuing a PoC under the leadership of the Nepali Congress, around the time of the Constituent Assembly (CA) election in 2008. It facilitated two major historic achievements – peaceful CA elections to establish an inclusive Nepalese republican, secular and federal state in 2008; and the abolition not only of the monarchy, but also the idea of a centralised, Hindu-dominated polity in Nepal.

Out of a total 601 CA seats, the Maoists won 229 seats (38.10 %), the Nepali Congress won 115 seats (19.13%), the UML won 108 seats (17.97%), the Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum (MJF) won 54 seats (8.98%), the Tarai-Madhes Loktantrik Party (TMLP) won 21 seats (3.49%) and the remaining 10.33 per cent of the votes were won by 56 other minor parties and two independent candidates (Nepal Election Commission, 2008). Although the Maoists became the major political party, they did not have a majority to form its government and pass a new constitution and important bills. To overcome this democratic loophole, Nepalese parties devised a new political strategy i.e. to form ‘consensus government’. Leaders of all parties agreed upon and vociferously advocated their commitment to PoC.

However there is an undercurrent of political friction between the Maoists and the SPA -especially the Nepali Congress and United Marxist and Leninist (UML) communist party of Nepal. The Maoists claim to be a progressive force, portraying the SPA as traditional and non-dynamic; whereas, the SPA claims it is a protector of liberal democracy from the radical leftists i.e. Maoists. These two forces are rigidly committed to maintaining the liberal multi-party parliamentary system which they established after the authoritarian Hindu Kind had stepped down in 1990. But the Maoists as part of their push to socialism in Nepal have an identity-based federalism on their agenda. This Maoist agenda of federalism has raised immense hope among the politically excluded and marginalized groups and indigenous ethnic groups of Nepal.

However, the idea of federalism has become extremely controversial, risking plunging Nepal into further uncertainty and ethnic conflict. There is even a threat that the  historical achievement which saw the declaration of Nepal as a secular, democratic republic in 2008 will be reversed, especially after the dissolution of the CA. This crisis arises not only because of the multi-level complexities associated with identity politics and federalism in an ethnically diverse society like Nepal (Nepal has 105 ethnic groups) but also because of the incompatability of liberal democratic majoritarian values with the undercurrents of the various local crises.

Basically the PoC is a transitional political arrangement agreed by Nepal to bypass the trouble associated with majority rule in a parliamentary democracy. This agreement was meant to hold while two major tasks were brought to a peaceful conclusion: the integration of the Maoist forces into the Nepalese army, which is almost complete now, and the drafting of a new constitution. But the political parties, including the Maoists, who signed up to this consensus had not anticipated the dramatic change in the political scene that took place after the Constituent Assembly (CA) election in 2008. It was not expected that Maoist would replace the Nepali Congress and UML, and become the largest party in Nepal through peaceful election. Consequently, the political card of ‘majority rule’ entered onto the political stage, trapping Nepal into the vicious cycle of a majoritarian politics.

When the Nepali Congress - the main liberal democratic party of Nepal - established itself as a strong opposition to the Maoists soon after these elections, the Maoists tried to ignore its presence. Because of this political polarization, the position of the UML and a new regional force, the Madhesi parties’ (MJF and TMLP) has become crucial to the government formation. Both have cleverly deployed their position. The UML has led the government twice, despite being the third largest party. MJF leaders have also been in power since 2008, enjoying powerful positions and ministries. So neither a consensus government nor a PoC have been fully practiced. Pro-Maoist analysts argue that this is because of the humiliating defeat of the Nepali Congress and the UML in the CA. Others criticise the Maoists as dogmatic orthodox communists incapable of cooperating with the liberal parties that they discredit. 

In the five years since the CA election, the government of Nepal has changed four times. At present the Nepali Congress and UML are out on the street campaigning to topple Dr. Baburam Bhattari (vice-chairman of Maoist-led government – a government in coalition with the Madhesi parties since August 2011). One of their main demands is to form a ‘consensus government’ and to go for new CA election in order to end the present political crisis. The battle between consensus politics and majoritarian politics has not only brought Nepalese politics to a standstill, but has also halted any economic progress. Moreover it has extended a turbulent political transition into an uncertain future. 

About the author

Sanoj Tulachan is a doctoral researcher at Warwick University. He was engaged in humanitarian and development projects in Nepal from 2003 to 2009.