Mired in political instability, Nepal continues to struggle to write a new constitution. As faith in the political framework diminishes, the people emerge as the only possible savior.
The absence of a constitution in Nepal has significantly undermined the basic tenets of democracy and responsible government. Owing to frequent delays in drafting a constitution, the country is still struggling to secure a coherent framework for political governance. Although the Interim Constitution of 2007 and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2006 have offered some guiding principles, they have failed to address internal conflicts and determine the fate of federalism across the country. Anxieties over ethnic strife and the preservation of cultural identity cannot be mitigated without a consistent method of managing disparities. The political and constitutional deadlock that threatens to weaken the sovereignty of Nepal is a direct consequence of the failure to produce a written constitution. The existence of a constitution would provide a specific code of conduct for grappling with these concerns and mobilise political parties in the right direction.
Nearly two days before Nepal’s Constituent Assembly term ended on May 27, 2012, the major political parties were embroiled in a heated debate over the issues of federalism and the implementation of a new constitution in the country. The Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) and the United Democratic Madhesi Front initially agreed that a system of identity-based federalism should be introduced. The Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninists disagreed with this proposition, stating that the issue of federalism in Nepal should be decided by a ‘transformed parliament’. They argued, on the other hand, that a constitution with some agreement on the issue of federalism should be promulgated with the promise that the is- sue will be subsequently revisited and reviewed.
There is arguably a growing need to guarantee certainty on the status of federalism and ensure that cultural and linguistic diversity is preserved. However, in recent months, the issue has emerged as a moot point and is significantly undermining the scope for political compromise. Since November 2012, President Ram Baran Yadav has urged leading politicians of Nepal to reach an agreement on a new government. However, the decision has been delayed several times and political leaders have not delivered an effective solution. On the contrary, they have merely paid lip service to the idea of restoring democratic principles in Nepal. At this critical juncture the political process in Nepal has reached a breaking point. There is no consensus on how free and fair elections can be conducted and a growing wave of scepticism over how the democratic process can be restored is impeding the sovereignty of the state in Nepal. In addition, there has been a
fundamental change in the electorate, which raises countless challenges for political actors. Only the implementation of a constitution can provide the necessary checks and balances to alleviate these issues and ensure that the basic civic functions of the state are not compromised.
Following the political instability generated by the debate over ‘ethnic states’ and the unwillingness of the Maoists to propagate further ethnic divisions in Nepal, the need to draft a constitutional framework has become even more acute. The political and economic uncertainty that has resulted from this debacle suggests that Nepal is in desperate need of reinvigorating its national spirit and reassessing its goals to deal with this political crisis. Owing to the increasing political unrest over whether Nepal should be transformed into a federal polity, the new constitution will also need to take measures to accommodate this objective. Delegating the task of determining the fate of federalism to a ‘transformed parliament’ may produce a series of ambiguous results. It would be prudent to resolve the matter and enshrine it within the framework of a constitution since we cannot be certain whether the parliament will adopt a serious approach to addressing this problem.
Although federalism appears to be the most popular solution to internal conflicts in Nepal, it is a fairly new strategy that requires administrative competence. In order to transform the country into a federal state, the constitution will need to identify the geographical areas, which will constitute federal units and the identity of their population. It must also specify a provincial administrative structure and tackle practical issues such as the demarcation of state boundaries, the allocation of power, the selection of a federal system of governance, fiscal management and resource distribution in each province. More significantly, Nepal can only be transformed into a federal state once elections are conducted for the provinces and proper administrative structure is in place to oversee the democratic process. Political parties and the state can only achieve these ambitious goals through effective cooperation with one another.
Unfortunately the current politi- cal climate is a major impediment to such collaborations. After the monarchy was abolished in 2008, political parties have put forward competing visions on how to foster democracy and social advancement in Nepal. The political scuffle between the Maoists and Marxists has further exacerbated the scope for political compromise. It has been noted that the major political parties are prejudiced against one another and are reluctant to negotiate their own sectional interests for the sake of good governance. As a result, it is unlikely that they will be able to meet the needs of the citizens of Nepal. Democratic principles can only be restored if change is stimulated at a grassroots level and more citizens participate to assist political actors and the state to mitigate the political and constitutional deadlock.
The internal conflicts in Nepal have become extensively politicized and have generated an overwhelming desire for federalism in the region. Before the state succumbs to popular opinion and creates federal units within the country, it must give priority to devising a constitutional framework. Only then can Nepal be transformed into a federal polity. The major political parties must reach a consensus on the issue of suitable governance. More significantly, citizens must play a more proactive role in ensuring that a federal constitution is achieved through grassroots campaigning and the administrative competence of the state.