Nepal’s Constitutional Standoff Threatens Its Transition
By Michael Vurens van Es, KATHMANDU: As the brawl that broke out in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly last week highlighted, the country’s transition from war to peace, and from monarchy to republic, is at a critical juncture. More than eight years after the end of Nepal’s decade-long civil war, a second Constituent Assembly has failed to promulgate a new constitution within its self-imposed Jan. 22 deadline. As the ruling coalition and Maoist-led opposition struggle to find a way out of the deadlock, instability has sharpened and is likely to continue.
In the past month, strikes and protests have crippled main roads and other transportation arteries throughout the country, bringing commerce to a standstill. Gas shortages and periodic electricity cuts unconnected to the political standoff have compounded frustrations in the capital, Kathmandu, where protesters across the political spectrum have demonstrated in recent weeks.
The mounting protests and security challenges are testing the strength of Nepal’s democratic institutions and the leadership of its major political forces. The long-feared prospect of a new constitution being passed by majority vote in the assembly, instead of by consensus among all of Nepal’s political parties, is looking increasingly likely. The ramifications for the constitution’s credibility are significant.
After the failure of the first assembly, which was dissolved in May 2012 following an extended four-year tenure, hopes were high that the second one would prove more successful in reaching consensus. During the subsequent period of rule by a transitional government that came dangerously close to fusing executive and judicial powers, Nepal managed to formally closeout its peace process by integrating former Maoist insurgents from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with the Nepalese army in April 2013. The following November, elections for the current Constituent Assembly erased the plurality held in the first assembly by the former rebels’ political party—at the time, the Communist Part of Nepal (Maoist), which later became the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), known as UCPN(M). As the party’s electoral rout became apparent in the hours after polls closed, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the former PLA commander known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, claimed fraud and conspiracy, before eventually—and grudgingly—accepting the election results.
Despite the potentially volatile political situation, the coalition government formed in February 2014 by the Nepali Congress and the social democratic Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), known as CPN-UML, has done little to placate the UCPN(M) and other parties that didn’t fare well in the elections. The coalition has appeared content to force contentious issues to a vote rather than reach consensus, the mantra that has undergirded the post-conflict peace process since parliamentary parties and Maoist rebels joined forces against King Gyanendrato in 2006 to lay the groundwork for a republic. CPN-UML Chairman KP Oli has been incorrigible in baiting the opposition, and coalition leaders have neglected to condemn calls from right-wing forces to restore the country’s “Hindu” designation in the constitution.
Though exacerbated by the failure of political leadership, the current impasse also reflects deeply held positions on an issue that has long vexed Nepalese politicians: the demarcation and naming of states in an inclusive federal structure.
The Maoists, previously as armed insurgents and now as the political opposition, have long advocated for ethnically delineated provinces to counter what some Nepalese see as a history of internal colonization. Yet the ruling coalition remains steadfastly opposed to what it perceives as ethnic federalism, focusing on the importance of using economic and resource considerations to demarcate provinces, and citing the difficulties that have dogged states experimenting with ethnic formulas, such as Nigeria and Lebanon.
The naming of provinces should be the easiest obstacle to overcome, with the obvious solution being to have the provincial legislatures decide themselves what they will be called. By contrast, the demarcation of mixed ethnic provinces has so far proved insurmountable, with leaders unable to agree on the status of five districts—three in the country’s east, and two in its west.
Flexibility on other outstanding issues, including governance models and electoral and judicial systems, could provide an opening for a package deal that avoids a majority-vote document. Both the opposition and ruling coalition have demonstrated a willingness to compromise on these issues, with the coalition open to accepting proportional representation within the parliament’s lower house, while the opposition has softened its demands for an executive president. In recent weeks, talk of a package deal—in which Dahal, the head of the UCPN(M), would be granted the presidency—gained some momentum, while the Maoists sought the inclusion of transitional justice issues in a political agreement. To date, the maximalist demands made by all parties regarding the federal structure have neutered these possibilities.
The current course, in which contentious issues will likely be put to a vote in the Constituent Assembly and require a two-thirds majority to be passed, will exacerbate short-term instability and leave an opening for future conflict and street mobilization. The fighting in the assembly that made headlines last week was an effort by opposition parties to block the proposed formation of a committee to draft questions and begin the voting process. The coalition moved ahead with the committee’s formation Sunday, prompting the opposition to vow continued street protests.
Should the majority vote be pushed through, the transformational nature of the constitution-writing process will be lost, leaving significant dissatisfaction. Moreover, the creation of a new Maoist splinter party in November that has called for a “people’s retaliation” and refuses to rule out a return to arms has heightened security concerns.
As the political deadlock deepens, Nepal’s future stability and the success of its transition depend on the extent to which political actors exercise their leadership in support of democratic institutions and procedures. Irresponsible posturing and power plays now are likely to have significant consequences at a later stage. That will, in turn, further impede Nepal’s growth prospects and diminish the rights its citizens are afforded under a compromised rule of law.
:: Michael Vurens van Es is a Kathmandu-based journalist and assistant editor at pan-regional magazine Himal Southasian. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, The Diplomat and Livemint & The Wall Street Journal, among others.
:: Nepalese opposition lawmakers shout slogans as they walk out of the Constituent Assembly in Kathmandu, Nepal, Jan. 25, 2015 (AP photo by Niranjan Shrestha).