Country in Crisis
Nepal is still groping for a Constitution and now time seems to be running out.
In 2006 King Gyanendra and Maoist insurgents ended a decade long strife by signing a peace deal in Kathmandu which had consumed nearly 13,000 lives. This was no ordinary moment for the 12th poorest country in the world as it ushered hopes for a transition to a republic after nearly 240 years of unbroken monarchy – the only Hindu monarchy in the world. The King in Nepal had always been considered a divine incarnation of Lord Vishnu. His removal from the throne in 2008 was therefore nothing short of god being thrown out of his own temple.
Earlier in 1990, Nepal had transitioned from an authoritarian monarchic rule to a constitutional monarchy. The Interim Constitution of 2007 created a 601-member Constituent Assembly in which the Maoist had emerged as a major political force. It was also agreed that the Constituent Assembly will act as a Parliament till such time that a new constitution could be adopted. The Constituent Assembly, however, failed to meet its 2012 deadline resulting in its dissolution and fresh elections.
The second Constituent Assembly, convened in 2014, has also been unable to draft a constitution acceptable to all stakeholders and this has plunged the country into another crisis. This repeated failure of the political parties to form a consensus for the country’s constitution has turned the initial optimism into widespread anxiety. As the future prospects over a new constitution appear nowhere in sight, the political turmoil is deepening and causing worries in the region.
The main reason for this political chaos in Nepal is the squabbles among the parties which is not a new phenomenon in South Asia. The governance structure of state is one of the most contentious issues to be tackled by the Constituent Assembly. This in turn is closely tied to the question of identity and equality in a diverse nation with a matrix of hundreds of communities, dialects and cultures.
At present Nepal is divided into five regions from east to west - Far West, Mid-West, West, Central and East - with control held by the central government in Kathmandu. But the ethnic and regional parties are in favor of a federal structure that recognizes and grants autonomy to their groups while its opponents fear that such sectarian politics would endanger the country’s unified national identity by fuelling ethnic and regional conflicts among various entities.
Disruptive behavior by opposing groups outside the working of Constitution Assembly has complicated the matter further. In spite of dangers of further widening of the rift, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal – the Maoist (UCPN-M) has announced formation of thirteen autonomous states which the ruling party considers against the spirit of Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Interim Constitution and undermining the Constituent Assembly.
The problem of creating and redefining the essence and identity of new constitutional democracy in Nepal is a genuine one after over two centuries of monarchy in which the people’s aspirations took a back seat. This is genuine but its resolution has been jeopardized by a power struggle among the political parties which are exploiting and further polarizing the diversity of the regions for their own narrow ends. Every effort towards finding a solution, like the one of preparing a questionnaire on contentious issues and voting on it in the assembly, has been resisted which does not augur well for the future.
The two thirds majority in the Constituent Assembly comprises a coalition of the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) party. The Maoist party which had done well in the first round of elections hasn’t performed well in the second round which could be one
reason for hardening of positions. Its alliance with the Madheshi Morcha, a grouping of regional parties from the southern parts, would tend to support this view.
It is ironic to note that the Constituent Assembly had been the demand of political parties in Nepal since 1950s. Once this demand materialized in 2008 after a prolonged struggle and plenty of bloodshed, the politicians began to define their own divergent stands on various issues in a rather inflexible manner. The political parties, particularly the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), the (Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) and the Nepali Congress (NC), amplified their disagreements on even the smallest possible issues.
Small but influential parties such as the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) for example are in favor of a Madhesi state with a pan-Madhesi identity while the Tharu minority in the Madhes region is against any structure which would block the entire Madhes region altogether.
This has resulted in their collective failure to measure up to the expectations of the Nepalese people to put the country on a democratic path as soon as possible to reap the benefits of prosperity in the fast moving 21st century economic dynamics. With the threat of taking to the streets by some of the more disgruntled parties, the impasse has all the potential to undermine peace in the fragile republic.
One reason why Nepal has ended in this quagmire could be that although it formed eleven thematic committees after the meeting of the first Constituent Assembly in 2008 which were charged with responsibilities to work on different components, the process generally remained free floating and eluded writing of a preliminary draft of the future constitution which could be debated upon to narrow down differences for an eventual consensus. Engagement of constitutional experts to frame a preliminary draft of the provisions of the Constitution, with a view to subjecting this to focused discussions in the Constituent Assembly could have moved the process closer towards a final conclusion.
Political posturing outside the formal constitution drafting process has adversely affected progress. Violent disputes have dominated the political discourse on various elements of the proposed constitutional structure while constructive discussions have been relegated to the back seat. Whenever progress is made, like the finalization of a report by the National Interest Preservation Committee (NIPC) of the Constituent Assembly, which had outlined the contours of the proposed Constitution, it was immediately undermined by one of NIPC’s own member who opposed the Concept Paper which led to further rigmarole of formation of a Concept Paper Discussion Committee. As a result, the milestones set for the Constituent Assembly continue to slip their deadlines.
Each political party in the country has sought to dominate the other in the proceedings instead of reaching for an accommodation of divergent views, with the UCPN-N party reportedly leading the negative trend. Sometimes disagreements have been on weightier issues like the proposed nature of the country’s federal structure and distribution of state power. On other occasions, disagreements and procrastinations have been on such trivial issues as the National Bird, National Animal and National Flower.
The single most contentious issue is whether to create federal states based on caste or ethnicity, which is demanded by the UCPN-M and its allies. The other four major issues of contention are: state restructure, form of governance, the electoral system and the judicial system. The NC and CPNUML call for centralized governance of a maximum seven provinces, a parliamentary system, first-past-thepost elections and a supreme court.
The UCPN-M calls for decentralized governance of 10 to 14 provinces; a directly elected executive; proportional-representation elections and a constitutional court. In addition, the NC and CPN-UML want to pass the constitution by majority vote in the CA, while the UCPN-M demands that an agreement be formed by consensus.
Time is running out for Nepal as social polarization has already heightened mutual suspicion and communal violence. Sporadic clashes have been taking place from time to time between supporters and opponents of a federal model created along ethnic lines. The concept of Federalism has been practiced in Nepal for nearly 240 years. As such the psyche of the Nepalese people is unlikely to give up this central idea so easily in spite of injustice suffered by marginalized regions of the country.
The irony is that while there have been so much display of inflexibly among politicians on the federalist nature of the constitution for nearly a decade, the ordinary Nepalese stuck in their day to day survival, as indeed citizens elsewhere in South Asia, are unlikely to know what this thing called a ‘constitution’ is all about.
The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of the Pakistan Navy.