Nepal constitutional reform an uphill battle

Author: Siegfried O. Wolf, Heidelberg University

Nepal is once again trying to change the nature of its political system. After the end of a 10-year Maoist insurgency in 2006, it is drafting a new constitution. Due to numerous unfortunate political undercurrents, numerous interruptions meant the constitutional-building process was delayed for more than seven years. Finally, on 20 September 2015 Nepal has formally adopted a new constitution, the first to be drawn up by democratically elected representatives after centuries of autocratic rule.

A boy carries the national flag of Nepal during a protest in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015 (Photo: AAP)

Supporters saw a new constitution as a way to cement the peace process and pave the way for national reconciliation and the entrenchment of democracy. But the proposal has created public dissatisfaction and has also led to an outbreak of violent clashes.

The history of democracy in Nepal is not only chequered, but also truncated. It started as a multi-party democracy in the early 1950s, but oscillated between absolute Hindu monarchy and various forms of democratic governance with a ‘peculiar secular touch’. It seemed that neither the process of sustainable democratisation nor the idea of liberal democracy ever fully reached Nepal.

The purpose of a new constitution was to lay the foundations for an innovative state and society. At its very core, the constitution was supposed to be guided by the principles of equal opportunity and political participation, in order to enforce democratic consolidation in the country. This included transforming the traditionally exclusive socio-political structure into a more inclusive system by promoting a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic state.

The architects of the new constitution were trying to address the major problems that led to the launch of the ‘people’s war’ by the Maoists. By both federalising and decentralising the nation, it was hoped that disadvantaged sections of the Nepalese population (such as women, ethnic minorities and Dalits) would be more involved in political decision-making and distributing national resources. The writers of the new constitution identified ensuring fundamental rights, freedom of press, rule of law ,as well as an independent judiciary and abandoning impunity for certain criminal activities as crucial steps for the future development of the country. They also hoped to strengthen infrastructure, restructure the educational system, abolish widespread corruption and abuse of public office, and fight widespread nepotism.

But due to Nepal’s dysfunctional political system and the partisan interests of political elites in Kathmandu, the constitutional project is far behind this visionary framework and has missed all suggested deadlines.

Drafting a constitution for a war-torn, multiethnic and multicultural country in an environment of mutual mistrust and animosity between political actors is an extremely difficult task. To further complicate the task, Nepal also has a history of political violence and large sections of Nepalese society are highly politicised.

The enshrined draft of the constitution aims to federalise the country and make permanent the abolition of the country’s Hindu monarchy which was deposed in 2008. As such, with the announcement of commencement of this constitution, a secular, federal democratic republican system has been institutionalised in Nepal.

It is important to note that the envisaged federalisation process — dividing the country into seven provinces — has sparked much anger, especially in the southern plains (Madhesh-Terai) and the Midwest, the epicentres of bloody protests. The main concern is that establishing the new provinces demands a reshuffling of internal borders which would require merging minority groups’ ‘own regions’ into larger provinces. Subsequently marginalised communities fear that they would no longer be able to preserve their cultural identity and their political representation would be limited. Several minority groups instead demand the introduction of ethnicity-based federalism. This would require significantly more provinces with borders favouring the respective minorities.

Another major flashpoint is the abolition of the Hindu monarchy and the subsequent promotion of ‘secularism’. Hindu conservative forces— like the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party — perceive secularism and the loss of the ‘Hindu feudal state structure’ as a threat to national unity and territorial integrity. They are pushing for the adaption of a single identity based on one religion, one language, one culture and one nation. They hope to form a homogenous (Hindu) society. Many Nepalese are in favour of a ‘Hindu Democracy’ as a system of governance.

Despite the incorporation of last minute amendments and the endorsement of the revised draft by an overwhelming majority of the Constitutional Assembly, Nepal’s supreme legal framework will likely remain a platform for the ideological battle over the country’s identity. Without a national consensus on the relationship between the state and religion and between the centre and the periphery the constitution will not serve its intended purpose as a catalyst for democratic consolidation and national reconciliation.

Siegfried O. Wolf is a senior researcher at the South Asia Institute at Heidelberg University, and Director of Research at the South Asia Democratic Forum, Brussels.

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