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Respect for minorities still doubtful under Nepal’s new Constituent Assembly

12 February 2014

Nepal’s Constituent Assembly has been seated more than two months after elections, and the country’s minorities are still processing the significance of the results. Kaz Obuka, MRG’s South Asia Programmes Intern, presents the following analysis.

Nepal’s constituent elections last November were a technical success, with an estimated turnout of over 70 per cent, relatively little violence, and observers generally satisfied with the conduct of election officials.

After accusations of conspiracy from electoral losers, eight political parties signed an agreement on 24 December 2013 that, if implemented, is expected to kick-start the formation of a new government.

These are significant accomplishments; however it remains unclear whether political stability, a constitution, and increased inclusion of Nepal’s most marginalized minorities will emerge from the process. The infighting over who should call the first session of the Constitutional Assembly bespeaks an interest in power plays rather than the long-term needs of the country. It doesn’t augur well.

Nepal, a small landlocked state wedged between India and China, and ruled by a Hindu monarchy for over 200 years, was thrown into turmoil in 1996 by a Maoist-led insurgency. The insurgency, which killed and displaced many thousands, ended in 2006 after the Maoists agreed to a peace process. Two years later the Maoists swept to power in elections, abolished the monarchy, and declared Nepal a secular state.

The current uncertainty is rooted in conflicts over the anatomy of the state, and the structure of its government. These were the two main issues that prevented Nepal’s first Constitutional Assembly, elected in April 2008, from fulfilling its mandate to create a new constitution – the Assembly was dissolved by the supreme court in May 2012 leaving Nepal with neither a legislature nor a constitution-drafting body.

The then incumbent Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) favoured an executive presidency similar to that of the United States, while the Nepali Congress Party, the main opposition, argued for a Westminster-style parliamentary government. The position of the United Marxist-Leninist Party (UML), the second largest opposition party, was that Nepal should adopt a combination of the two, similar to the French system of governance.

Regarding the former; the Maoists, with the backing of several small political parties representing the Madhesi ethnic group – traditionally discriminated against in Nepal – supported the creation of 10-14 new provinces based on the ethnic identity of the majority of residents. However, opponents of the measure, including the UML and the Nepali Congress, raised concerns that the move would lead to tensions between different castes, and claimed that the Maoists were deliberately sabotaging talks in order to prolong their grip on power.

Structural inequalities are deeply entrenched in Nepal, with economic power closely correlated to caste and ethnicity. High-castes dominate the political leadership, bureaucracy, and military, as well as media and business spheres. Ethnic federalism is seen by proponents as the best way to escape the grip of dominant groups. To activists like Stella Tamang, who sat on the Commission for State Restructuring, resistance to ethnic federalism came across as attempts to preserve the status quo. “It seems they don’t want to have any change”, she told me.

The Maoists openly backed the aspirations of Nepal’s minorities, however their resounding defeat in the polls means that the UML and Nepali Congress, parties that had neither minority inclusion nor ethnic federalism in their electoral mandates, will take the lead in developing Nepal’s political future.

An equally troubling concern, Ms. Tamang said, is the fact that identity-based federalism is a major interest for many of the most marginalised groups. In frustration with a perceived lack of commitment from the Maoists and indifference from other major parties, minority politicians left to form their own. These new parties failed to win a single seat.

Indeed, as Mukesh Khanal points out, many leaders who were vocal about ethnic federalism over the past five or six years did not win the votes of their core constituencies. This is a surprising development; as when, just prior to the dissolution of the last Constituent Assembly, a group of party leaders attempted to push through a privately negotiated constitution – sans ethnic federalism – street protests and uproar in the Assembly laid them low.

In an interview with The Diplomat Prof. Kapil Shrestha, a political scientist at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University, expressed his doubts that identity-based federalism will be a roadblock to constitution drafting. “The politics of identity and ethnicity are no longer as powerful as they once were,” he said. “All parties, even the Maoists, are no longer interested in raking up this issue. Voters are more pre-occupied with socio-economic issues and having a progressive looking democratic constitution.”

He has a point. The Maoists were rewarded with an overwhelming victory in the 2008 elections for leading the resistance against an avaricious elite and incompetent monarchy. It should come as no surprise then, that they have also been blamed for Nepal’s economic decline and political instability.

A peanut vendor interviewed by The Washington Post in Kathmandu summed up this disillusionment. “They led a revolution to fight for the peasants, so I thought they would really uplift our lives,” said Dhital, 24. “But when they came to power, they were just like everyone else. Why should I vote for them again?”

In punishing the Maoists for failing to deliver on their prior electoral mandate, and rejecting identity-based parties Nepalese voters appear to have pushed ethnic issues to the margins of the new political agenda. There are real risks with disappointing aspirations. “Right now, minorities are in a state of shock”, Stella told me. If the parties drag their feet on federalism a backlash is quite likely. Previous failures to satisfy minority aspirations led to a series of agitations in early 2007 that destabilised the country.

Rakesh Karna, an activist with the NGO SUPPORT Nepal, sees dark clouds on the horizon. “The gap between these [Congress and UML] and more progressive parties [on the issue of ethnic federalism and minority inclusion] is huge. It is unlikely they will reach a settlement.”

Dalit woman, Nepal
Dalit woman, Nepal / CIMMYT

He told me the election results were grave developments because fewer representatives will be in the Assembly from Dalit and other minority groups; donor spending shifted away from directly supporting minority interests in the election process; and the most marginalized ethnicities are under-represented in international agencies. This means that it will be hard going to get their concerns serious attention. “English-speaking educated [minorities], who can fight, will do OK. But those who cannot will lose out.”

Dalits, estimated to comprise around 13-20 per cent of the Nepalese population, made up only around 8 per cent of the last Assembly with 50 members. The new Assembly will have only 40.

Mr. Karna also told me that the emergence of the RPP-N [a royalist, Hindu fundamentalist political party] as the fourth largest political force in Nepal, and their strong showing in the Kathmandu valley – home to many of Nepal’s well-educated elites – is an indicator that the Congress and UML will appeal to Hindu sentiments to consolidate their political power.

“I doubt there will be any respect for minorities,” Mr. Karna said.

This article reflects the opinion of its author only and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.