Nepal: The Constituent Assembly that was…..By Anshuman Behera
The Constituent Assembly (CA) of Nepal was dissolved on May 27, 2012 after it failed to draft a Constitution within the stipulated time, even after four extensions. Amid protests and disagreements among the political parties, the former Prime Minister (presently the caretaker Prime Minister) Baburam Bhattarai announced fresh polls to be held on November 22, 2012 to give a logical conclusion to the drafting process. The blame game, as usual, is at its peak among the political parties.
The CA was a standing demand of various political parties of Nepal since 1950. The hopes and aspirations of the people have been betrayed as the largest democratically elected body ever in the history of Nepal could not accomplish its mission. The ensuing uncertainty has the potential to drag the country into further instability and violent conflict.
Following the successful signing of peace agreements between the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) and the Seven Party Alliance (SPA), the CA was elected with 601 members in April 2008. Originally, the CA was mandated to draft a constitution for Nepal and secondly to give a logical conclusion to the peace process. In its first meeting on May 27, 2008, the CA fixed a time frame of two years (that is, till May 28, 2010) to draft the constitution. Accordingly, 11 thematic committees were constituted to work on various components of the proposed constitution. Despite the fact that all the thematic committees submitted their respective draft reports to the CA, the latter failed to draft the constitution by May 28, 2010.
A need for extension of the CA tenure was sought and eventually it was extended by one year. On May 28, 2011 the CA term was extended by another three months, and again on August 31, 2011 by a further three months. The fourth and final six month extension for the CA was made on November 25, 2011, which got over on May 25, 2012. This time around, the Supreme Court of Nepal did not approve a further extension for the CA resulting in the dissolution of both the CA and the government.
During its four years of existence, the CA did have some positive achievements, the most important among these being the integration of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the UCPN-M. but the fact remains that it eventually failed to finalise a Constitution for Nepal because of several contentious issues ranging from debates over the national bird, flag, song, and language to the issue of federalism. Nepal’s political parties rarely agreed with one another on these issues. Apart from minor disagreements, there were about 18 major contentious issues, out of which the issue of federalism proved too difficult to resolve and came in the way of the successful conclusion of the process by the stipulated deadline.
There have been two levels of government in Nepal—central and the district. During the regime of former King Mahendra, Nepal was divided into 14 zones and 75 districts for the purpose of better administration and socio-economic development. However, the structure was more unitary than federal in nature. Once the peace process started, the Madheshi political leaders were quite enthused about the issue of federalism. Subsequently, the UCPN-M took up the issue and tried to garner popular support by supporting the idea of identity-based autonomous regions. Between December 11 and 18, 2009, the UCPN-M, on its own, declared 13 autonomous states and pressurised other political parties to offer their views on federalism. The 13 autonomous states the UCPN-M announced were: Limbuwan, Kochila, Kirat,Sherpa, Bher-Karnali, Tharuwan, Seti-Mahakali, Tamsaling, Newa, Bhote, Magarat, Tamuwan and Madhesh. This was a clear move to reap political capital out of this issue especially when it was being discussed in the CA. Consequently, the CPN-UML and the Nepali Congress demanded the creation of federal units that would be viable.
There had been many hindrances and interruptions in one form or the other throughout the CA’s four-year tenure. The first meeting of the CA was held on May 27, 2008. During its second (June 5, 2008) and third meetings (June 11, 2008), the elected Law Makers of different parties started emphasising their divergent stands on various issues and boycotted the meetings. There was no significant discussion on any important issue relating to the drafting of the constitution between the third meeting and the 28th meeting held on May 4, 2009. It was only at the 29th meeting held on May 27, 2009 that a 15-member ‘Concept Paper Discussion Committee’ was formed.
One of the most important issues that interrupted the smooth functioning of the CA was the repeated change of prime ministers and the prolonged political battles for the same. Between April 2008 and May 2012, Nepal had five Prime Ministers. Repeated elections for the formation of government consumed the precious time that the CA could have otherwise devoted for the drafting of the constitution. The worst ever political horse-trading took place when Madhav Kumar Nepal resigned from the prime ministership on July 1, 2010. There continued a seven-month long political deadlock and the political parties were finally able to elect Jhala Nath Khanal as the prime minister only after more than 20 rounds of prime ministerial elections. Khanal, who became PM on February 6, 2011, had to resign on August 14, 2011. He was followed by Baburam Bhattarai who became the prime minister on August 28, 2011 and continued till May 27, 2012. Every time there was a change in the leadership, the CA’s work was interrupted to a great extent.
The UCPN-M, as a major political force in Nepal, was responsible, to a large extent, for the failure of the CA. The intra-party fighting among the top leaders of the UCPN-M kept them constantly focused upon setting their house in order. Secondly, when the CA was in the process of drafting the constitution, the UCPN-M declared its so-called People’s Constitution on May 28, 2010. Before that it also announced 13 autonomous states based on identity. Instead of playing an important role in winning the confidence of the other political parties, it tried to blackmail them on a number of occasions, which did not augur well for the process of constitution drafting.
Despite these hindrances, the CA had been successful in forging consensus on a number of issues and the most important among them was the integration of the PLA. Under these circumstances, the Supreme Court’s decision disallowing another extension of the tenure of the CA beyond May 27, 2012 is unfortunate. It has to be remembered that apart from drafting the constitution the CA was also involved in the business of electing the government and keeping checks on it. These were additional responsibilities and therefore, suitable extension till the completion of the drafting process was the need of the hour.
At this juncture, there is no guarantee that fresh elections would resolve the outstanding issues and finalise the constitution making process. From now till November 22, 2012 political parties will try to capitalise upon the issue of the failure of the CA and blame each other for the failure. Given the present situation, it is unlikely that any political party would gain an absolute majority to form the government; the political muddle may thus continue. One can only hope that Nepal’s political parties would take a leaf out of their earlier deliberations on even knottier issues like ‘integration’ and complete the process of constitution making, which will be a prefect tribute to Jan Andolan II.