Saturday, January 15, 2011

Nepal: Nepal Moves to Face Challenge of Federalism

Photo Credit: International Crisis Group
By Suresh Dhar
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) - As Nepal moves towards taking the peace process forward and forming a new government within three months, the landlocked Himalayan country -- tucked between China on the north and India in the south, east, and west -- is confronted with serious challenges.

Nepal was a monarchy throughout most of its history until the establishment of a Federal Democratic Republic in May 2008, two years after a decade-long People's Revolution by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) -- along with several weeks of mass protests by all major political parties of the country -- culminated in a peace accord.

The ensuing elections for the constituent assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of the abdication of the last Nepali monarch Gyanendra Shah. A federal republic was set up on May 28, 2008 and the first President of Nepal was sworn in on July 23.

The challenge ahead is that the federal restructuring of the state has emerged as a major and highly politicised demand of ethnic and regional activists in Nepal -- and federalism is not simply the decentralisation of political power.

In Nepal it has become a powerful symbol for a wider agenda of inclusion, which encompasses other institutional reforms to guarantee ethnic proportional representation and a redefinition of Nepali nationalism to recognise the country's ethnic and cultural diversity, explains the International Crisis Group (ICG).

The Brussels-based think-tank says in a new study: "Activists demand the introduction of reservations to guarantee proportional representation of marginalised groups in government and administration. They want provinces to be named after the most numerous ethnic and regional groups and boundaries drawn to make them dominant minorities.

"Some claim to be indigenous to these regions and demand preferential rights to natural resources and 'agradhikar' -- priority entitlement to political leadership positions in the future provinces."


The demand is far from surprising because ethnic and regional demands were important components of the Maoist agenda during the civil war. In fact, in eastern Nepal, much of their support depended on it. State restructuring became a central component of the 2006 peace deal. After violent protests in the Tarai in 2007, federalism was included in the interim constitution as a binding principle for the Constituent Assembly.

But of the three major parties, the Maoists are the only one to give "full-throated support" to federalism and the establishment of ethnic provinces, notes the Crisis Group.

"Identity politics may sit uneasily with their class-based ideological framework but federalism is of great importance for them. Now that the former Hindu kingdom is a secular republic, it is the most important point left on their short-term transformative agenda. Much grassroots support, the loyalty of ethnic and regionalist activists within the party and their wider credibility as a force for change depend on them following through," says the report launched on January 13, 2010.

As things stand today, both the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), UML, have accepted federal restructuring. They have actively participated in drafting a federal model in the Constituent Assembly and there is agreement on most institutional arrangements including the division of powers between provinces and centre.

But this process has been driven by longstanding proponents of federalism within both parties, none of them very influential. It is unclear, therefore, whether there is a wider consensus. While both parties have agreed to federalism in the spirit of bargaining; observers say that neither of them owns the agenda. In fact, behind the official positions they sense significant resistance to it.

The Crisis Group says: "Backtracking on federalism is politically impossible. Both the NC and UML are already struggling to retain cadres and leaders from minority backgrounds. But deferring crucial decisions, or stalling the constitutional process altogether, could be tempting for those opposed to change. The assumption that the Maoists have both the most to gain and the most to lose from the constitutional process could lend wider appeal to the idea."

The risks are hard to calculate, adds the report. The reason: Ethnic and regionalist groups, already suspicious of the major parties' commitment to federalism, threaten protests and ultimately violent resistance should it not come.

Their eyes are on the May 28, 2011, the deadline for the promulgation of the new constitution. Popular support is most widespread among Madhesis in the central and eastern Tarai and members of ethnic groups in the eastern hills. Many Madhesis are disillusioned with their leadership, but feel reforms are incomplete. The organisational landscape of ethnic activists in the eastern hills may be fragmented for now, but underneath lie strong personal and political networks.

In view of this, activists are getting frustrated and the mood is becoming more militant. With an issue to rally around they are likely to coalesce; a politicised population would easily be mobilised for protest movements, should federalism not come, the report cautions.


What is more, not all want federalism. Popular opposition to ethnic federalism in particular is substantial, by virtue of its association with identity politics. Many Brahmins and Chhetris, the dominant caste groups, fear they will lose out from the introduction of ethnic quotas and federal restructuring.

But organised resistance is limited and fragmented. Open opposition only comes from a fringe of the political left which fears Nepal's unity.

"Several Chhetri organisations are not against federalism itself but want to defend their group's interests in the restructuring process. Pro-monarchy groups and the Hindu right are less concerned with federalism than with the republic and secularism. But given the common uneasiness with the redefinition of Nepali nationalism, a broader conservative alliance is a distinct possibility," predicts the Crisis Group.

However, the structure emerging from the Constituent Assembly, federal but with a strong centre, is seen to offer a feasible compromise. If the NC overcomes its aversion to provinces named after ethnic and regional groups, the new constitution will offer important symbolic recognition of Nepal's cultural diversity, argues the report.

In combination with the language rights and proportional representation in administration and government envisaged, this would go a long way towards meeting popular aspirations among ethnic and regional groups.

The fact that the draft offers little scope for preferential rights beyond proportional representation as well as strong individual rights provisions should allay Brahmin and Chhetri fears of future discrimination. Not promulgating the constitution in time or deferring a decision on federalism, however, could spark serious unrest.