A Manifesto of Discontent
Constitution-making in Nepal is stuck in a web of self-serving politicking that is going nowhere and is making the country look like a mockery of democracy and rule of law.
The constitutionally flawed but politically expedient decision to extend the term of the Constituent Assembly in Nepal until August 28 revives hopes for the elusive goal of concluding the peace process and writing the constitution. However, both are unlikely, pushing the country into either fresh elections or chaos.
Political leaders have agreed to finalize the first draft by August 18 so that they can debate the basic law of the land in the Assembly, an ambitious goal given the numerous contentious issues that remain to be settled in the middle of an intense power struggle between four key political formations.
The second three-month extension on May 29 was possible after three politicians hammered out a vaguely worded 5-point deal that led to promulgation of the Ninth Amendment of the Interim Constitution to extend the term. The deal seeks to (a) complete the peace process by August, (b) finish writing the first draft of the constitution also by August, (c) make the Nepal Army an inclusive institution, (d) extend the Assembly’s term by three months, and (e) Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal should resign to pave the way for a national unity government.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal
A fundamental difference among the current political leadership is the very concept of democracy. The Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) looks at North Korea as its role model for democracy and this is precisely why they fought the “people’s war” for a decade. The rest of the parties – the Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) – argue they did not join hands with the Maoists to overthrow absolute monarchy and to introduce a communist totalitarian regime.
Beneath this impressive ideological divide is the nasty power struggle at the personal level. UCPN-M Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who is unacceptable to other parties as well as India, will never allow his deputy Baburam Bhattarai – considered by many as India’s blue eyed boy – to lead the national unity government. In the NC, Sher Bahadur Deuba is pitted against Ram Chandra Poudel. Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal of CPN-UML, who came to power by shamelessly overthrowing his own party colleague Madhav Kumar Nepal’s government in February, does not have the full backing of his own party in government. Each constituent of the UDMF is a ministerial aspirant and would do anything to get the job. Since all these leaders are well-known for their autocratic style and sleazy life, democracy is a big joke in Nepal.
Like the 3-point deal that led to the first extension in May 2010, the second extension refers to a commitment to peace, constitution and a unity government. The second is likely to fail for the same reason: the entire year was wasted in ousting and electing the prime minister. Prime Minister Khanal, known in his party as a “Maoist agent,” says he will step down the moment there is a consensus, which remains elusive. With UCPN-M’s backing, Khanal will do anything to sabotage a consensus, and if he makes progress on constitution building and peace, Dahal is quite capable of returning to power. Landlocked Nepal’s dependence is so extensive on India that no government can function without New Delhi’s support.
Concluding the peace process is critical for real progress in writing a constitution acceptable to all political parties and ordinary Nepalis. “It is difficult to move forward in constitution writing unless peace process makes progress,” says Ram Sharan Mahat, former finance minister and NC leader. “The key indicators for peace process are adjustment and rehabilitation of the Maoist combatants within three months and surrender all weapons to the government.”
However, the NC is so desperate to join the government that it has seriously compromised its position recently: it does not insist anymore on Prime Minister Khanal to resign, and it no more insists on the Maoists to surrender their arms. In other words, UCPN-M as of now continues to have its own army, has all the weapons it needs, and the army is still under Maoist command even if it is maintained now on state funding.
There are deep and persisting differences on the details of the peace process. The number of personnel to be integrated has not been agreed upon. There are issues of rank harmonization: 19,000 combatants have 4,641 officers, the same number of officers for the 95,000-strong Nepal Army. Standard norms have not been agreed upon. Even the UDMF wants 10,000 Madhesis from the southern flatland bordering India to be integrated into the Nepal Army. The struggle for power and control of state resources is so intense that ordinary people are completely fed up with it. The Republic Day celebration on May 29 was lackluster with scant public participation. The Assembly, effectively a rubber stamp of a handful of politicians conspiring all the time, long ceased its legitimacy despite the technical extension.
A poll by Himal newsmagazine published on May 14 said 49% of the people wanted a fresh mandate instead of the extension while 21.1% want a team of experts assigned to write the basic law of the land. Last May’s poll showed only 12.7% favoring fresh polls. The poll showed a growing support for the revival of the 1990 constitution with 10.45 favoring this option compared to 2.5% last year. Another opinion survey by the Interdisciplinary Analysts published in April found 53% of the respondents expressing doubts on the continuation of the peace process with only 16% admitting it would continue. The reasons for skepticism: 42% blamed politicians who were busy with their own vested interests to write the constitution on time, 24% blamed political parties’ failures to hammer out a consensus and 6% blamed it on the Maoists.
Currently, the conditions in Nepal make the country look like a mockery of constitutional democracy and rule of law. With the peace process in a deadlock, constitutionmaking will continue to be difficult. Even if a rudimentary document is ready, it would have no popular support. Therefore, it would be better to not have a constitution rather than have a manifesto of discontent. In such a situation, seeking a fresh mandate would be a better option than a rightist or a red coup d’etate. There is no alternative to building constitutional democracy and instruments of rule of law. The writer is a Research Fellow at Sangam Institute for Policy Analysis and Strategic Studies, Kathmandu.
The political crisis in Nepal is bound to delay the peace process.
Madhav Kumar Nepal