Unending woes

Stalemate in Nepal

The people of Nepal are justifiably proud that their country was never colonised, even though most other countries in the region were under the British. The joke in Kathmandu is that the British in India took one look at the mountains to the north, and didn’t bother conquering Nepal because they found it ungovernable. The Chinese, too, invaded Nepal in the 18th century but headed right back because it just seemed like too much trouble to stay.

Given the political brinkmanship of the past month, it doesn’t look like much has changed in the Himalayan kingdom-turned-republic. It is still ungovernable, and Nepal’s giant neighbours, India and China, are getting edgy about the prolonged instability.

Even the international media, it seems, has given up trying to make head or tail of what is going on in Nepal. The reports swing between alarmist and over-simplified headlines like ‘Nepal on the brink of collapse’ to news of this year’s mountaineering traffic jam on Mt. Everest.

After a pro-democracy movement in 1990 turned Nepal into a constitutional monarchy, Nepal’s Maoist guerrillas waged a ruinous ten-year war that left 16,000 dead. A ceasefire agreement in 2006 led to the Maoists contesting and winning elections in 2008 for a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution. The monarchy was abolished and Nepal was declared a secular, federal republic.

With four rickety coalition governments in as many years, and three extensions of the constitution-making body, Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled that the assembly’s mandate couldn’t be extended beyond May 27 this year. On that day, last-minute attempts to strike a deal between Nepal’s four main political groupings on two contentious points in the constitution failed. Prime minister Baburam Bhattarai let the Constituent Assembly die a natural death, and abruptly declared elections for November. So, Nepal is in a limbo: it doesn't have a constitution, it doesn’t have a legislature, it has a lame-duck prime minister and a ceremonial president. The country is sailing into uncharted waters, with only a sketchy interim constitution that can be interpreted every which way. Any move the president or prime minister makes now can be interpreted as unconstitutional, and be legally challenged.

There were disagreements on two main provisions in the new constitution that led to the deadlock: on the boundaries and labels of future federal units and on whether Nepal should keep its parliamentary system of government or go for a directly-elected presidential system. Nepal's political parties have wide disagreements between themselves, and even within individual parties about these provisions.

Ethnic-based federalism

While the coalition of the Maoists and a group of regional parties from the plains broadly favour ethnic-based federalism and a directly elected president, the centrist Nepali Congress and the moderate left UML oppose federal units named after ethnic groups and fear that a directly-elected president could become a dictator.

Things got so polarised in the month before the constitutional deadline that the western part of Nepal was completely shut down by a month-long strike by groups with rival demands for a federal territory. Kathmandu itself saw an often-violent three-day shutdown in which vehicles were vandalised and reporters attacked.

The debate over the new constitution has boiled down to whether Nepal should have future federal provinces named after indigenous groups (and if so, how many?), or have as few provinces as possible carrying neutral geographical names.

Proponents of ethnic federalism argue that it will devolve power to Nepal's 100 or so marginalised ethnic groups, bring them into mainstream national politics and encourage autonomy and local self-governance. Opponents fear that ethnic federalism will weaken Nepal's fragile national unity, fragment the country into warring ethnic fiefdoms, encourage conflict over natural resources and keep the country poor.

A Public Opinion Survey carried out by Himalmedia in May showed that nearly three-quarters of the respondents, including a majority from Nepal’s various ethnicities, thought federalism based on identity was a bad idea. A majority were also fed up with parliamentary democracy, and willing to give a directly-elected president the chance to take charge. Although there was widespread public disappointment that the new constitution was not written by May 27, many in Nepal also heaved a sigh of relief because the compromise worked out on ethnic federalism would have left everyone unhappy and would have spilled out into rival street protests.

It is doubtful elections can be held by November as announced by the prime minister. But there is an urgent need to end the political uncertainty by cobbling together a government of national unity, and for the parties to go back to where they left off on the constitution to try to find a workable formula on federalism.

This isn’t insurmountable since those for and opposed to ethnic-based federalism had come to a compromise plan on May 27, and tweaking it could address the concerns of both sides. But for this, Nepal’s political parties need to show more responsibility and far-sightedness than they have exhibited so far.

Playing politics with identity is dangerous, but not redressing existing grievances and discrimination in Asia’s most unequal country can be even more so. And that will make Nepal even more ungovernable than it was 200 years ago.

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