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POLITICS-NEPAL: Plains People&#39s Demands Cast Shadow on Polls

Damakant Jayshi

KATHMANDU, Jan 26 2008 (IPS) - While Apr. 10 has been set as the day on which Nepalis will elect a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, violent protests by plains people demanding regional autonomy threaten the thrice-postponed polls.

The biggest challenge the constituent assembly (CA) elections – which originally were to have been held soon after the end of the Rana (nobility) oligarchy in Nepal in 1950 – are from parties based in the tarai (southern plains of Himalayan Nepal bordering India) and various armed groups active there.

Anti-election campaigns by minor pro-palace parties add to the challenges faced by the seven-party alliance (SPA) that includes the country&#39s largest parties – the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified-Marxist Leninist) and the armed Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).

The elections were postponed in June for logistical reasons as the Election Commission said it did not have the required laws and enough time – at least 90 days after the announcement of polls date – to conduct elections, and again in November after the Maoists briefly quit the government following differences over a future role for Nepal’s discredited 239-year-old Shah monarchy.

While the Maoists have returned to the SPA, the plainsmen, led by the Tarai Madhesh Democratic Party (TMDP), continue to hold out against the polls until their demands for regional autonomy are first addressed.

The TMDP is headed by Mahantha Thakur who was among the senior leaders of the Nepali Congress party before he quit it (as well as the parliament and government) to lend weight to struggle for "Madhesi (plains people) freedom and autonomy" and has refused the government’s offer of talks.

Thakur said on Friday that the TMDP would not participate in "meaningless" talks. "We will fight for a separate Madhesi state if our 11-point charter of demands – submitted on Jan. 3 – is not met," Thakur said.

Last Sunday, the TMDP and the United Madhesi Front (a combine of Madhesi People&#39s Rights Forum and Sadbhawana Party) announced that they would jointly fight for their demands and have called for nationwide protests beginning Feb. 4.

TMDP demands include declaration of the tarai as a single autonomous federal state, change in election laws, constitutional guarantee of autonomy with the right of self determination, proportional representation of plainsmen in all state organs, rightful share in the state budget and talks between the government and armed groups in the tarai.

A sticking point is the TMDP&#39s demand for change in a provision in electoral law that requires political parties contesting 20 percent or more seats under proportional representation system (335 in all) to field candidates in proportion to the population distribution of women, indigenous people (janajatis), plains people madhesi), low caste (dalit) and other disadvantaged communities.

This would seriously challenge the power of the brahmins, chhetris and newars (priestly, warrior and trading upper caste groups) that have long dominated all organs of the feudal Nepali state.

There are 240 seats up for grabs under first-past-the-post electoral system after the Election Commission increased the number of electoral constituencies from 205, reflecting changes in population figures as per the 2001 Census. But the bulk of the new seats have gone to tarai.

The TMDP, that has demanded that the ceiling of 20 percent be raised to 50 percent, says that if it abides by the provision then a proper representation of the madhesis will not be realised.

While formally inviting TMDP for talks, minister for peace and reconstruction Ram Chandra Poudel said the government has fulfilled most demands of madhesis and "was willing to address the rest." Speaking with IPS, Poudel said the government was confident of convincing the TMDP to contest the CA polls under the existing electoral law. He declined to elaborate.

The Election Commission has already enforced the election code of conduct and has requested political parties not to stage any further demonstration or bandhs (strikes) that would adversely affect the election schedule which it has already unveiled.

However, it is not just the demands of madhesi-dominated parties that the government has to contend with in order to ensure that the CA election is held, but also armed groups in tarai which have vowed to disrupt the polls. They have targeted government employees and killed a number of them in recent times as a warning and have also called for establishing a separate country of Madhesis.

The most prominent among these are the two factions of the ‘Janatantrik Tarai Mukti Morcha&#39 led by Jai Krishna Goit and Jwala Singh, respectively. Of the two, the Singh-led JTMM has owned up to killing a number of secretaries of village development committees who are government representatives at the village level. They too have rejected the government&#39s offer for talks, saying they would do so only under United Nations supervision.

In New York, on Wednesday, the chief of the U.N. mission in Nepal, Ian Martin, told a press meet that security in central and eastern tarai was not conducive for the holding of elections.

Meanwhile, the government has unveiled a three-phase special security plan for the election on Thursday. According to the plan to be enforced from Jan. 29, the government will deploy some 132,000 security personnel, of which 70,000 will be temporary recruits and the others drawn from the police, home minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula told a press conference in Kathmandu on Thursday. The districts in the tarai will have more security than those in the hills and mountains.

The coalition government hopes that the Thakur-led TMDP, Madhesi People&#39s Rights Forum, and Sadbhawana Party will agree to the government&#39s proposition to address some demands after the constituent assembly is formed, thereby clearing the decks for the election.

As for the armed groups, the government is prepared to use force if necessary.

"Those trying to foil the election will be defeated, including those declining the government&#39s talks offer," Sitauala said, while briefing a parliamentary special committee on monitoring constituent assembly election on Thursday.

But Sitaula ruled out the use of the army. "The army will stay in their barracks and the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army will stay in their cantonments. The army can be deployed only when the seven ruling parties take a joint decision to that effect."

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