Confusion in constitution-making (Nepal)
|Art: Bilash Rai|
The movement of Nepal’s political evolution has recently been similar to that of a pendulum, swinging between breathtaking advances that are nothing less than historic, and political stalemate between bickering parties. Over the course of the past month, the elected Constituent Assembly declared Nepal a Federal Democratic Republic, putting an end to the monarchy and, with it, the 240-year-old Shah dynasty. Belying all kinds of fears to the contrary, Gyanendra Shah, the deposed king, left the Narayanhiti Palace peaceably with a farewell press conference. The former royal palace has since been officially converted into the Narayanhiti Palace Museum, though it has yet to actually open its doors in this new iteration.
And yet, the people could not get a sense of real movement because, fully two months after the results of the 10 April elections were announced, the Constituent Assembly was unable to meet for any substantive sitting to focus on the real issue at hand: the task of writing the new constitution. The numerous decisions left pending in order to get to the April elections in the first place emerged as political stumbling blocks between the various political parties and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). These have included the ‘management’ of the 19,000-odd Maoist combatants; who exactly will be included as members of the National Security Council, and so on.
The largest hurdle, however, has turned out to be the selection of the first president of the republic. The Maoists, in full momentum after their dramatic electoral showing, have been extremely keen to control the process, and to dictate the name of the constitutional president, even while staking claim to the executive prime ministership. But the other political parties, in particular Girija Prasad Koirala’s Nepali Congress, have been unwilling to accede. They have pointed out that, in the context of a hung assembly – in which the Maoists have no more than 37 percent of the members (and 29 percent of the popular vote), and have been unable to cobble together a larger flank – the ex-rebels could hardly be allowed to prescribe the entire process. Most importantly, no party disputed the Maoist claim to the executive prime ministership; the others have, however, regularly reminded the Maoists of the dictates of the interim constitution, such that all decisions need to be taken through consensus.
Watching this process from the outside, the recent discourse has not been entirely correct when it has castigated the political parties for what were seen as opportunistic battles for prize and prestige. While doubtless, Koirala would want to be the first president of the republic, what the public was witnessing was a dedicated attempt to balance power. While the Maoists sought to project the presidency as a ceremonial post that they would magnanimously hand over to a republican leader from the southern plains, or to an ethnic Newar woman politician of the left, the other parties were quite aware that the president had to be someone of stature, who could act as a counterbalance to the enormous power that the Maoists now hold.
Indeed, for a former rebel force that still wields the threat of force without compunction in the country’s rural areas, the Maoists have now been legitimised by the elections, which seems to be only adding to the arrogance of the cadre at the ground level. And now, the Maoists will also lead the government, holding the prime-ministerial berth as well as significant ministries, including home affairs, finance and defence. As prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka, ‘Prachanda’) would hold control not just over his own combatants in the cantonments, but also over his erstwhile enemy force – the national Nepal Army, now coming under his command.
In such a context, the received wisdom of Kathmandu’s cognocenti would have had Maoist Chairman Dahal keep the executive prime ministership, and the president’s post would have gone to Girija Prasad Koirala. But from the beginning, the Maoists sought to keep the post away from his grasp, due to anxieties over his ability to cramp their style once in government. After all, the interim constitution dictates that the political parties work through consensus; and with all the political parties arrayed on one side, the Maoists would have had to compromise when their own suggestions for the president did not pass muster.
What changed the political dynamics suddenly in the middle of June was a decision by the Maoists to approach the CPN (Unified Marxist-Leninist) with an offer of the presidency. The latter party, humiliated in the elections as the radical Maoists made off with the prize, has been going through an organisational catharsis. Amidst talk of ‘leftist unity’, and against the danger of a long-term weakening of the party for being a junior partner in what would become a Maoist-led coalition rather than a national unity government, the CPN (UML) has decided to test the Maoist offer.
As Himal goes to press, the interim constitution’s diktat that the political parties work through consensus seems to be in the process of being abandoned. Peeved at the Maoists and UML deciding on a presidential candidate all by themselves – and that the candidate is not going to be someone from its own ranks – the Nepali Congress decided to sit in the opposition. Because there is no provision in the constitution for an opposition, however, this will have to be introduced through an amendment, at which point the requirement of a two-thirds majority to bring down the sitting government will lessened to a simple majority.
Nearly two and a half months after the elections, and with a caretaker government, led by Girija Prasad Koirala (including the Maoists), having allowed the country to become almost completely anarchic, it seems that, at the very least, a Maoist-led government will be formed. The best-case scenario is that the ex-rebels – the only Maoists in the world to come to power through elections – will respond to the people’s mandate with a sense of responsibility and accountability, and with respect for democratic values. If that happens, then one can expect relatively smooth sailing for the government, such that attention can be devoted to the drafting of the new constitution.
The worst-case scenario, though, is that the Maoists run a harsh state, and oppositional politics erupts in the Constituent Assembly. At that point, not only would the constitution-writing process be affected, but myriad tensions within Nepali society could rise to the surface, with the political players unable or unwilling to stop the unravelling. It is important to be mindful of this worst-case possibility, so that the political forces will be ever mindful of keeping the country from going in that direction – in order that they can, instead, concentrate on the drafting of fine, fundamental laws that will take the society into the future.