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Future unclear for Nepal June 1, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : Dowler, Amy, Nepal , trackback

Amy Dowler

At about quarter to midnight last Sunday night, fifteen minutes before the mandate of the constituent assembly (CA) he  led was due, Cinderella-like, to expire, Nepal’s Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai appeared on television sets across the country to deliver a live address.  Nepali speakers can listen to the full address on YouTube.

Chipladonga Protest Photo: Amy Dowler

Bhattarai confirmed what was already clear: last ditch efforts by Nepal’s three major parties – the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN(M)), Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) (CPN(UML)) – and the Madheshi Morcha (a confederation of parties representing people from the southernmost part of the Terai region who entered into a coalition with the CPN(M) to form government last August) had failed to bring consensus.  What was not clear was what would happen next.  Earlier in the week the Supreme Court quashed an attempt by the government to extend the CA for a further three months.  The NC and CP(UML) had been arguing that the constitution could still be promulgated by the 28 May deadline with outstanding issues  referred to the new, post-constitution CA.  There was talk of a constitutional crisis, of emergency rule.  Some ethnic minority groups claimed they would secede from Nepal and proclaim their own states should a satisfactory solution not be found by 28 May.

The 601 members of the recently dissolved CA were elected in 2008 with a mandate to write a constitution following the end of the 10-year civil war in 2006 and the passage of the country from a Hindu kingdom to a secular republic in 2008.  It was given two years to complete its task.  The CA’s term has been extended four times, its tenure effectively doubled, and it has been led by five Prime Ministers.  The Supreme Court ruled that the most recent CA extension must be its last, and that a fresh mandate would need to be sought should the CA fail to promulgate a constitution by its expiry on 28 May 2012.

As well as confirming that the parties had failed to reconcile their differences Bhattarai stated that, given the Supreme Court’s decision, the CA must be dissolved.  He said that fresh elections would be held in six months on 22 November and that he would run a caretaker government until that date.

It remains unclear whether Bhattarai’s plan will come to fruition.  The NC, CPN(UML) and hardline faction of the CPN(M) have called the move unconstitutional as the interim constitution does not contain provision for another round of polls.  They say Bhattarai no longer has any claim to legitimacy and must step down.  The NC is leading work on a “systematic plan of action to topple” the incumbent PM and install a consensus government.  President Ram Baran Yadav yesterday issued an abstruse statement that appeared to lend support to Bhattarai as caretaker but remained mute on the question of elections.

Real progress

Up until only weeks ago things were looking much rosier.  Substantive progress had been made on arguably the biggest sticking point in the peace process, the disbandment of CPN(M) cantonments, with all ex-combatants opting for voluntary retirement doing so by mid-February and those choosing integration with the National Army (NA) handed over to the NA, along with the Maoists’ weapons caches, in mid-April.  On May 5 the NC joined the CPN(M) and Madheshi Morcha to form a consensus government under Bhattarai’s continued Prime Ministership.  It was agreed that Bhattarai would stand down as Prime Minister before 27 May to make room for an NC-led consensus government to oversee fresh elections once the new constitution had been promulgated.  On 14 May parties made a key step by agreeing that executive power would be shared between a directly elected President and the Prime Minister who would be elected by Parliament.

A day later a whole raft of issues were resolved: Parliament would hold ultimate supremacy over the President, the legislature would be bicameral and have 376 members, a constitutional court would be formed.  Most significant of all was the apparent breakthrough on the composition of federal Nepal.  The three major parties had finally reached agreement that there should be 11 multi-ethnic states.  The Madheshi Morcha registered its disagreement with the 11-state plan but said it would not block promulgation of the constitution over the issue.  The day was capped off by the CPN(UML) announcing it would join the consensus government, thereby making it a national unity government.

Four days later the CA passed a bill amending the interim constitution so that the endorsement of the new constitution could be sped up to allow the 28 May deadline to be met.  Although that meant less time for scrutiny, it did signal the CA’s optimism about progress.  Later that day though the issue that had always been most sensitive, and that has led ultimately to the present situation, once again reared its ugly head: CPN(M) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda) announced that the 11 state model was off the table.

Fatal hiccup: state restructuring

The controversy over state restructuring goes to the heart of identity in Nepal in the twenty-first century.  For most of Nepal’s history, power has been concentrated according to caste (among the high caste Brahmins and Chettris) and geography (in the Kathmandu Valley).  The authorship of a new constitution gave the CA the opportunity to address the historical disenfranchisement of much of the country’s citizenry.  The aim was to devolve power such that all Nepalis would feel equally invested and represented in the new state, putting an end to the centrifugal forces that represent an existential threat to the Republic of Nepal.

But the question of the basis for determining states has been controversial and emotive all along.  In the weeks leading up to the 28 May deadline chaos reigned and the country was brought to a virtual standstill as every possible interest group made their wishes known through bandhs, demonstrations, hunger strikes and sit-ins.  Despite the promulgation of competing voices, the debate can be crudely simplified into two positions (although it should be noted there are tangential arguments such as those for and against secularism).  The first is that states should reflect ethnic identity, the second that they should be based on ethnically-blind criteria such as geography and economic viability.  While those in the first camp argue that identity-based self-determination will endow minorities with the political empowerment they deserve and have historically been denied, those against the idea worry that the attempt to mollify ethnic groups may end up backfiring.  Identity-based political units, particularly in the economically productive and traditionally politically sidelined Terai, they argue, could secede from Nepal altogether.

The major political forces are divided between the two camps with the CPN(M) and Madheshi Morcha in favour of states reflecting ethnic identity and the NC and CPN(UML) preferring multi-ethnic states and an inclusive Nepali identity.  The nexus between identity politics and state-society relations in South Asia is a minefield that is arguably a root cause for many of the region’s conflicts in the post-colonial period.  Nepali identity cannot be simplified but it is up to those framing the constitution to effectively communicate the real-life implications of the various scenarios, rather than letting the debate be monopolised by hysterical interest groups.  It remains to be seen whether Nepal’s faction-ridden political parties have the capacity for such nuance.

India’s influence in  Nepal is always sensitive.  That sensitivity was exacerbated recently by recent allegations – denied by India – that an Indian diplomat stationed in Birgunj, a town in the Terai, incited Madheshis to demonstrate in favour of a single Madheshi state.  India’s response to these latest developments has so far been cautious.  A Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson is quoted as saying India is “closely monitoring” events in Nepal and has “confidence in the democratic commitment and wisdom of the people of Nepal, which has led to considerable progress of the constitution-making process”.

What next?

Bhattarai’s current position is tenuous at best.  Prachanda is standing by him for now, but political alliances in Nepal are as fickle as they are opportunistic.  Either way, it appears Nepal is set for constitutional limbo for some time to come.  Fresh elections must be held, whether a Bhattarai-led caretaker government, an NC-led consensus government or some other configuration runs the country in the interim.  The makeup of the new CA – which may be very different from the previous one now that the Maoists are perceived to be no better than the established parties – could render previous constitutional negotiations moot.  Even if that isn’t the case, a solution to the problem of political division will be no easier six months from now than it is today.  Meanwhile parties are once again distracted from the task at hand by mudslinging and power plays.  Fresh ideas are needed if Nepal is to resolve the current deadlock.

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