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Nepal’s Constitution (II): The Expanding Political Matrix
Nepal’s Constitution (II): The Expanding Political Matrix
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Report 234 / Asia

Nepal’s Constitution (II): The Expanding Political Matrix

Nepal’s major political parties must urgently agree on a roadmap to negotiate on federalism and write the new constitution, whether by holding elections to a new Constituent Assembly or reviving the previous body.

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Executive Summary

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

Nepalese police and United Democratic Madhesi Front activists clash in Birgunj, south of Kathamndu, on 31 August 2015. AFP/Manish Paudel
Alert / Asia

Nepal Conflict Alert

Spiralling protests against a draft constitution have left 23 dead and hundreds injured in Nepal in two weeks. An over-militarised security reaction and inadequate political response from the centre threaten to fuel deep-seated ethnic, caste and regional rivalries less than a decade after the civil war’s end. The major parties should recognise the depth of discontent and the fundamental challenge this poses to the legitimacy of the proposed constitution. A hastily-passed document, weeks after mobilisation of security forces to counter citizens’ protests against it, is unlikely to be the social contract Nepal needs.

The constitution, nine years in the making, was envisioned as an instrument to address longstanding grievances of large parts of society, who argue that the old system marginalised them from state institutions and political authority, deprived them of a fair share of the benefits of development and discriminated against them. These groups include plains-based Madhesi, Tharu and smaller groups, Dalit caste groups in the hills and plains, hill ethnic Janajati (“indigenous nationality”) groups and women. Many have concluded that the 8 August draft does not adequately deliver on commitments to a federal system and inclusion.

The government and its opposition partners in the constitution deal say they are under pressure to end years of uncertainty by passing the draft quickly. They downplay the significance of the protests, arguing that not everyone in a democracy can be satisfied and that the constitution can be amended. The state response to the protests has been security-heavy and in some areas, the army has been mobilised to deal with civic unrest for the first time since the civil war.

Kathmandu circles underestimate the scale and intensity of disagreement and the complexity of the often-competing grievances and claims. There are high-voltage public debates over disadvantage and structural discrimination that feed social resentments and grievances. These deeply-felt issues will continue to find expression in agitation and opposition if the present moment is handled badly. A botched solution risks entrenching communal polarisation in society and radicalising groups that feel their concerns were not seriously considered.

Reconciling the expectations of all Nepalis was always going to be a challenge for the Constituent Assembly. The 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the then Maoist rebels and representatives of political parties, as well as the 2007 Interim Constitution, promised political reform and redress for past inequities. Numerous social groups based on caste, gender, ethnicity, and regional interests lobbied for their agendas. Often, movements turned violent to force the government to take them seriously. Since 2007, governments have signed over 40 agreements, often contradictory, with different groups.

The recent violence was mainly sparked by delineation of the six-, now seven-state federal structure proposed to replace 75 administrative districts. Tarai-based groups wanted to keep stretches of the southern Tarai plains together, including by changing the traditional north-south administrative divisions, which mixed plains, hills and mountains in administrative zones. In the hills, some Janajati groups want to keep areas traditionally considered homelands intact, though this is not a focus of protests. Other issues are also highly contentious though not explicitly part of the current demands: a proposed citizenship measure which makes it difficult for children with a single Nepali parent to gain citizenship with the same rights as those who receive citizenship by descent; and the proposed electoral system and standards for demarcating constituencies, which may not deliver better representation of the agitating population groups.

Madhesi communities, one of the country’s biggest population blocs and the largest group across the Tarai, and Tharu communities, many concentrated in the far-western Tarai, say the current system puts them at a demographic disadvantage politically. They anticipate gains under the new system but object to some parts of the plains being included in hill states. Traditionally hill-based communities, and the framers of the draft constitution, counter that migration continues from hills and mountains to the Tarai, forming mixed communities, and that hill community members have land or commercial ties to the disputed areas. Madhesi and Tharu groups believe the major parties want to renege on the letter and spirit of earlier commitments to political empowerment and reform.

Within the Constituent Assembly, which functions as the parliament, there is discontent. The governing coalition consists of the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic (MJF-D); its opposition partners in the constitutional deal are the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M). The MJF-D last week said it could no longer support the deal if Tharu concerns were not addressed. The NC and UML have forbidden their members from trying to amend the draft; 33 smaller parties have refused to be part of the process, and the oldest Madhesi party, Sadbhavana, resigned from the Constituent Assembly last month.

There are protests and agitation in much of the Tarai. Kailali district in the far west, parts of which Tharu groups and the hill-based Undivided Far West Movement want for their respective new states, had the worst violence last week. The major parties revised the federal model to add a seventh state in response to the latter’s demands. That added to the discontent of Tharu groups, considered among the most historically marginalised in Nepal, who said their grievances were ignored as they lacked close ties to Kathmandu power centres.

Since the protests began three weeks ago, at least fifteen people have been killed by police in various parts of the country. On 24 August, seven police and a child were killed in an apparent attack by protesters in Kailali’s Tikapur town. Kailali remains under a 24-hour curfew. Given restrictions on movement, it is difficult to verify reports of significant displacement of Tharu families fearing or following retaliatory violence. Birgunj city and areas in the central Tarai are tipping into serious violence, with nine people killed by police this week. The National Human Rights Commission has not officially investigated any of the deaths. The army has reportedly been mobilised at different times in Kailali, Dang, Parsa, Rautahat and Sarlahi districts. There are concerns about communally driven violence and about the state’s response. An indefinite banda (strike) across the Tarai is in its third week.

It is unlikely the discontent can be resolved by a deal between power-brokers in Kathmandu that does not address core issues. While some district-level political leaders and parties that represent Tharu and Madhesi groups in the Constituent Assembly have been involved in the protests or support them, the mobilisation and leadership comes largely from within local communities. Many of the protests do not involve huge numbers, but rely instead on better organisation and target the shutdown of specific infrastructure, such as government offices and stretches of the national East-West highway.

The government must act urgently to address tensions, reduce the risk of more violence and to restore confidence in the constitution-writing process. The enormous trust deficit between agitating groups and Kathmandu’s political leadership will worsen if the government and major parties persist with a heavily securitised response to fundamentally political protests, and if they and the media portray the protests as marginal or criminal. The government should also urgently form an independent commission to investigate the recent killings.

All protesting groups must denounce and guard against violence from within their ranks, and avoid threatening or extreme rhetoric. They must also offer realistic alternatives, not just reject Constituent Assembly proposals.

The major parties say they are open to amendments and willing to talk to any group that feels it has been excluded. The government in early August conducted a four-day exercise to obtain feedback on the draft, though there is a public perception it will ignore suggestions that do not fit the current draft’s form.

The timing, sequencing and design of talks will be challenging. It is essential the government does not insist on artificial deadlines or preconditions and is ready to discuss the status of past commitments. The agitating groups are wary of being forced into an accelerated timetable within the Constituent Assembly. The government anticipates speaking to each agitating front separately, but Tharu and Madhesi groups may seek a joint negotiation. Small adjustments to the proposed boundaries of states in the far west and east would significantly lower tensions but are strongly resisted by some leaders.

Tenor will matter as much as issues. If there are more deaths and if groups feel negotiations are not respectful or in good faith, this could jeopardise confidence in other contentious compromises on citizenship, the electoral process, the number and distribution of constituencies, the threshold for political parties, representation and inclusion.

The anger in the Tarai and among various social groups is real. If it is ignored or mishandled, the violence will grow. If the new constitution is truly to be one for all Nepalis rather than a starting gun for new forms of conflict, its framers must recognise that getting it done right is more important than getting it done fast.