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Asia

Elections in Nepal overshadowed by protests

As the Himalayan nation of Nepal prepares to elect a new Constituent Assembly, opposition supporters have resorted to violence to disrupt what experts view as a crucial step in the country's path to a stable democracy.

In an attempt to disrupt the upcoming national poll, an alliance of 33 opposition parties in Nepal recently called for a transport blockade, demanding that the current interim administration be disbanded and a new multi-party government be formed to oversee elections at a later date. The group believes the November 19 vote will not be fair if it is overseen by the Chief Justice heading the current caretaker government.

But the blockade - set to last until election day - hasn't gone quite as planned. After thousands of drivers across the country defied the strike, opposition activists resorted to violence, torching cars, forcing businesses to close and bringing much of the South Asian nation to a standstill.

The incident is just the latest in a string of political upheavals, exposing the increased level of polarization in one of the world's youngest democracies. "The bandhs, or strikes, are a typical tool used in Nepal to compel other political parties into granting concessions by paralyzing economic activity," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program of the US-based Brookings Institution.

"Every time the moment of taking big decisions arrives, Nepalese politicians pull out the bandh ploy," she told DW, adding that this pattern had been repeated over the past years, but especially in the run-up to May 2012, when the fourth deadline to pass a new constitution was to expire.

No consensus

The current power struggle in the impoverished Asian nation with a population of around 30 million goes back some 20 years. The Himalayan nation of Nepal was a kingdom for more than two centuries, ruled by absolute monarchs. But things started to change in 1990 when then King Birendra, under pressure from pro-democracy groups, agreed to become a constitutional monarch.

Election campaign posters of Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) are pictured during the election campaign of their party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, at Kritipur in Kathmandu October 29, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

More than 100 political parties are fielding candidates in the upcoming election

A few years later, social unrest coupled with quarrels among political parties descended into a decade-long civil war in which an estimated 16,000 people died. The conflict only came to an end in 2006 when the government reached an agreement with Maoist insurgents, which effectively abolished the monarchy and turned the country into a republic two years later.

The 2006 peace deal was supposed to usher in a new era of democracy, as it not only included the former rebels into the mainstream political system but also paved the way for elections to a legislature that would be in charge of drafting the young democracy's new constitution.

But the Constituent Assembly elected in 2008 was disbanded four years later, after failing to achieve a consensus. So it was decided in early 2013 that a caretaker government headed by the Supreme Court's Chief Justice would hold new elections - the country's second after the end of the civil war.

Diverging visions

The country's 12 million voters are now set to elect the 601-seat parliament, which is once again expected to act as a constitution-drafting body. More than 100 parties, including three major ones - the Unified Marxist-Leninist, the Nepali Congress and the Maoists are fielding candidates.

But it is unclear whether the elected parties will overcome their political differences this time around. Experts point out that previous attempts to draft a new constitution have repeatedly failed over disagreements regarding the creation of federal states and the distribution of power between these and the central government in Kathmandu.

While some such as the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) or UCPN(M) - the main Maoist group - seek to embrace the American presidential system, others such as the Marxist-Leninists advocate the adoption of a French-style democracy.

There are also political parties such as the Madhesi, which support a model with a weak central government and greater regional autonomy. "Some political actors want a federal structure based on ethnic lines. But others oppose such a system, arguing it would be discriminatory and hamper economic trade," Felbab-Brown told DW. Nepal is made up of more than 100 ethnic groups.

André Lecours, political scientist at the University of Ottawa in Canada, believes the upcoming poll is crucial for the future of democracy in the Himalayan nation. Moreover, the results will determine the power of the mainstream Maoist party in the political system, he added.

"A strong performance by the Maoists could pave the way for a constitution establishing a presidential system and identity-based federalism."

'A violation of rights'

However, attempts to derail the electoral process are on the rise, with more than a dozen groups headed by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) calling for a boycott. The splinter faction of the UCPN(M) claims the elections are unconstitutional and has engaged in disrupting the distribution of election material and setting candidates' vehicles on fire.

United Nations' resident coordinator in Kathmandu, Jamie McGoldrick, has reacted to the unrest by saying that everyone should respect the democratic right to take part in a peaceful, open and inclusive election.

Chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, gives a speech during the party's election campaign in Kathmandu November 13, 2013. Nepalese are due to vote on November 19, for a constituent assembly meant to draw up a new constitution. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar (NEPAL - Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS)

Lecours says a Maoist victory could pave the way for a presidential system

"Bandhs or strikes, when enforced by violence or the threat of violence, are a violation of the political rights of citizens and against the laws of Nepal," McGoldrick criticized.

Given the level of political fragmentation, analysts are skeptical about whether the new assembly will be successful this time round in carrying out its task. Felbab-Brown said that Nepal could fall back to where it was in 2008 if no political consensus was reached. "The newly-elected body could end up as paralyzed and conflicted as the previous one," she warned.