Nepal without a constitution; Into the wild
AFTER four years of deliberation, marked by long delays and partisan power struggles, Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) was dissolved on Sunday night—without completing a new constitution. The country is now cast into deep legal and political uncertainty.
The leaders of Nepal’s four major political groups were able to compromise on most things. On the question of whether the country should be governed by a directly elected president or by a prime minister with a majority in parliament they settled on “both”—with powers to be shared between the two.
The issue on which the talks failed was whether the country should be divided into federal states along ethnic lines. This is a question that has polarised the country at large. The prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, has called for the election of a new Constituent Assembly on November 22nd. If it takes place it would effectively become a referendum on “ethnic federalism”.
The government had wanted to extend the CA’s term for a fifth time, to allow a further chance for negotiations. But late last week the Supreme Court ruled that any further extension would be unconstitutional and that politicians would have to seek a fresh mandate if they were unable to reach an agreement within the deadline.
In a televised address minutes before midnight, when the CA was set to expire, Mr Bhattarai was quick to assert that executive powers will remain with him and his cabinet under the interim constitution of 2007. In the absence of any legal clarity, however, his legitimacy was immediately disputed. Most observers now believe a power struggle between the prime minister and the president, Ram Baran Yadav, is likely. The two oldest political parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) and Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML), which form the main opposition to the Maoists, have appealed to the president not to endorse the election date set by the prime minister. They believe that in calling for elections without their agreement Dr Bhattarai has governed in a way that is both “unconstitutional” and “authoritarian”.
It is a sign of the bitterness of the political divisions that both parties welcomed last week’s Supreme Court judgment, the NC even resigning from the cabinet in protest at the government’s proposal to extend the CA term. All Nepali politicians are deeply unpopular, all the more so now that they have failed to deliver a constitution, but it may be that the NC and UML believe that they have the most to fear from an angry electorate. (They might not oppose the election if they thought they would win.) All sides are struggling to claim popular support for their position and lay the blame on the others for the collapse of the process.
Under the interim constitution the presidency’s role is ceremonial and politically neutral. But Mr Yadav is perceived, especially among supporters of the Maoists, as being politically ambitious. They accuse him of maintaining links to his former party, the Nepali Congress. (He had a controversial role in the downfall of an earlier Maoist-led government in 2009.) Mr Yadav will have an important role in interpreting the legal situation and determining what happens next.
In a front-page editorial, the Kathmandu Post warned of the danger of further polarisation among the population, as different ethnic and social groups blame one another for thwarting the CA, and harden their positions in anticipation for whatever happens next. A similar process of polarisation is likely to take place among the political parties.
The drafting of a new constitution was supposed to complete a peace process that arose from the rubble of a Maoist insurgency which ended in 2006. Some now fear that the existing “achievements” of the peace process are in jeopardy. The declaration of Nepal as a secular state was intended to protect the rights of religious minorities—but is opposed by some Hindus who want to roll the clock back. The first act of the CA when it met in 2008 was to abolish the monarchy—but the former king’s enduring political ambitions may be gauged by his new website. Monarchists are now likely to question the legitimacy of the republic, scenting the opportunity for a revival.
If or when elections do take place there is a danger of violence, should political campaign events becomes the new battleground for increasingly divisive communal issues. If past form is anything to go by, the stronger national and regional parties may try to use their muscle at the grass-roots level to shut out their rivals. Yet there is now no alternative to a fresh popular mandate if Nepal is to complete its transition to peace and democracy. (the economist.)