Nepal’s Constitution (II): The Expanding Political Matrix
Asia Report N°234
27 Aug 2012
The peace process and stalled constitution writing exercise, in particular the debate about federalism, have expanded Nepal’s political matrix. Identity politics is a mainstream phenomenon and new ethnic-based and regional political forces are coalescing. Actors who want a federal structure that acknowledges Nepal’s many identities have allied, overcoming other political differences. The Maoist party has split. Once centrist forces have moved to the right. All parties are grappling with factional and ideological divisions. Old monarchical forces are more visible. How these political shifts will settle depends on the parties’ decisions on resuming constitution writing and future electoral calculations. The Constituent Assembly has been dissolved after failing to deliver the new constitution on the 27 May deadline. The constitution was to establish federalism and address the demands of marginalised groups. Social polarisation over these issues compounds constitutional uncertainty and the legislative vacuum. The tensions around federalism and fluid political equations threaten to provoke volatile confrontations.
The elections to the Constituent Assembly in 2008 changed Nepal’s political landscape, and not only because the Maoists unexpectedly emerged as the largest party after ending their decade-long insurgency. The new Madhesi parties representing the plains populations of the southern Tarai belt became the fourth largest force in the assembly. The Maoists and Madhesis argued Nepal needed what they called ethnic federalism. Devolution of state power to new states created along ethnic lines is meant to address the historical marginalisation of janajati or ethnic or indigenous groups and Madhesis. Janajati groups did not become a mainstream parliamentary phenomenon then, but the issue became the centrepiece of the peace process, which envisaged sweeping structural changes. Since the election, the traditional Nepali Congress party and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) have rejected many aspects of the proposed socio-political transformations, notably by opposing identity-based federalism.
In May 2012, when it looked as if identity-based federalism was slipping away, janajati politics came together. A multiparty caucus of ethnic Constituent Assembly (assembly) members became assertive. An informal pro-federalism alliance emerged, which included the Maoists, a large front of Madhesi parties and the janajati caucus, putting identity at the centre of Nepali politics. There are also social or intellectual movements associated with all pro-federalism actors. Outside political circles, the general public is increasingly asking that all parties clarify their positions.
The ramifications of the Maoist split, which was made official in June 2012, are unclear. The smaller new party says the Maoists surrendered too much during the peace process. But the division was also about personal rivalries and ambitions. The breakaway party says it will not immediately launch another war and is reaching out to diverse, sometimes mutually hostile actors, including former Maoist fighters, ethnic activists and ultra-nationalists. The establishment party – what remains of the original Maoist party after the split – is much stronger, but has serious problems of discontent and factionalism within its ranks. Both Maoist parties are struggling over assets and cadres; these contests could spread even to factions within the parties. A protracted feud is also certain over which of the two parties is more faithful to the agenda of transforming Nepal and to leftist ideology.
The Nepali Congress, the second largest party after the 2008 elections, has led the fight against federalism and inclusion. It has other serious problems, including a leadership crisis, factionalism and discontent among top leaders. Meanwhile, the UML, the third largest party in the last assembly, took disciplinary action against members sympathetic to ethnic demands. These members are under pressure from ethnic groups to choose between their party, which refuses to compromise on identity-based federalism, and their constituencies, which are increasingly favourable to it.
Both the Congress and the UML are popular in Nepal’s opinion-making circles and must decide if they want to cater primarily to the upper-caste, upper-class and urban elites, or return to a broader social base. They have moved from occupying what was traditionally considered the centre in Nepali politics to being on the right. This space is for those who claim that federalism, political inclusion and minority rights damage national unity and meritocracy. Actors in this position consider that inequality has primarily economic bases and that policies addressing ethnic discrimination harm individual rights. They define themselves as democratic as opposed to the Maoists and ethnic groups, who they present as illiberal and to the far-left or subversive.
The far-right is occupied by a monarchist party and other formerly royalist actors, who have gained some visibility and confidence. This is more due to the mainstream parties’ sloppiness and bad faith than widespread nostalgia for the monarchy. Although there is little chance of the king returning, other aspects of the old system, particularly Hinduism, could be deployed in new political ways to counter the anxieties that stem from federalism.
Cooperation between the Maoists, Madhesi front and janajatis would have seemed unlikely until recently, as there are many contradictions between these groups. These will persist, but the parties are likely to still find common ground. Their ability to forge and maintain electoral alliances, however, will depend on local circumstances and will be challenging. Janajati leaders will compete with Maoists, old Maoist-Madhesi tensions could resurface and Madhesi-janajati relations are still often far from warm.
The Madhesi parties, prone to repeated splits, are unlikely to lose their collective hold over Madhesi loyalties. Yet they too must recalibrate. Their repeated splits, the perception that they are more corrupt than the other parties and increasingly visible caste politics could reduce their collective bargaining power.
The ground has shifted beneath Nepal’s peace process. New forces – organised and spontaneous, pro- and anti-federalism, inside and outside parties – complicate negotiations but must have their say. The parties and leaders assume there is no alternative to themselves. They are wrong. The anxieties and expectations surrounding federalism are a widespread phenomenon. The shift towards potentially polarising ethnic politics is encouraged because mainstream political actors are scattered, often vague and sometimes dishonest, distracted by mutual sniping and prone to making undemocratic and unsympathetic deals. These mainstream politicians need to set their own houses in order, listen to others, know what they stand for and get on with the constitution. Otherwise they risk ceding political space to extremists of every hue who might appear more pragmatic and sympathetic to a frustrated polity.
Kathmandu/Brussels, 27 August 2012