Civil unrest set to continue as Nepal fails to agree on constitution

Nepalese lawmakers have failed to agree on a new constitution as the political parties remained at loggerheads over basic issues, a situation likely to be resolved through elections this year, as Alison Evans tells DW.

Another deadline for drafting a new constitution for the Himalayan nation was missed on January 22 as the main political parties squabbled amongst themselves over key issues. Parliament Speaker Subash Nembang adjourned the late-night session after opposition lawmakers disrupted proceedings for nearly three hours. “If a culture of obstruction is allowed, there will be no constitution,” Nembang told assembled legislators.

Following the abolition of the Nepalese monarchy in 2008, the country elected a Constituent Assembly (CA), with the Maoists’ political party, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal–Maoist (UCPN-M), winning a majority of the seats. However, that CA was dissolved four years later, mainly because of its inability to reach a consensus.

In the subsequent November 2013 elections, the more conservative Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal–United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) overshadowed the UCPN-M and formed a coalition, temporarily alleviating the political deadlock in the Himalayan nation. However, the new CA has also been struggling to draft a new constitution.

Nepal Maoists
A convention centre, established under gratis by the People’s Republic of China, currently doubles as Nepal’s parliament complex.
In a DW interview, Alison Evans, senior Asia Analyst at IHS, talks about why several attempts to draft a new constitution have failed and why continued civil unrest is to be expected in the coming weeks.

DW: Why did the Nepalese Constituent Assembly fail, yet again, to agree on a constitution?

Alison Evans: Politicians in Nepal have been wrangling over the drafting of a new constitution since the first CA election in 2008. This first CA was dissolved in May 2012 after it failed to meet three (extended) deadlines for a new constitution.

The CA failed yet again to draft a constitution because the underlying political dynamics of negotiations have not changed: despite months – now years – of negotiations, the parties cannot agree on the fundamental issues of federalism, identity, and a balance between presidential and parliamentary powers.

Given that this not the first time Nepal’s political parties have failed to draft a constitution, what are the main issues of contention?

The single most contentious issue is whether to create federal states based on caste or ethnicity, which is demanded by the UCPN-M and its allies. The four major issues of contention are: state restructure, form of governance, the electoral system, and the judicial system. The NC and CPN-UML call for centralized governance of maximum seven provinces, a parliamentary system, first-past-the-post elections, and a supreme court.

The UCPN-M calls for decentralized governance of 10 to 14 provinces; a directly elected executive; proportional-representation elections; and a constitutional court. In addition, the NC and CPN-UML want to pass the constitution by majority vote in the CA, while the UCPN-M demands that an agreement be formed by consensus.

Shortly before the deadline, feuding Nepalese politicians threw microphones and shoes at each other and opposition party lawmakers stormed the well of parliament later to prevent the ruling coalition from pushing ahead with a vote. Why was this latest CA so chaotic?

Leaders of the main opposition party, UCPN-M, threw chairs and microphones, and pushed over desks in the CA on Tuesday, 20 January. Party leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal – also known as Prachanda (meaning “fierce”) – apologized a day later at a press conference, saying, “We had no intention of starting a fight but the situation got out of control.” Four security guards were reportedly injured, but these protests both within and outside the CA have been relatively non-violent compared to the previous CA’s era.

What are the consequences of the protracted political stalemate for the Himalayan nation?

The CA is also effectively Nepal’s parliament, so while constitutional negotiations are ongoing, other important policies – mainly related to energy, foreign direct investment (FDI), and infrastructure – cannot be adequately addressed.

The capital Kathmandu still experiences blackouts for up to 14 hours per day, and some remote regions of the country have little-to-no roads to transport people or goods. While Nepal remains in a political limbo, poor governance is likely to continue to discourage much-needed FDI and delay economic and infrastructure development.

How would you describe the current political situation?

The situation is unstable because January 22 was the deadline not for drafting, but for promulgating a new constitution. It has been clear since the second deadline on November 9, 2014 that this final date would almost certainly not been met. As such, disagreements in the CA and protests over the ineffectiveness of all political parties are unsurprising.

Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala (R) shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu on August 3, 2014<br /><br /><br />
(Photo: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Security has been intensified around the country. Do you expect further unrest?
Security was increased in Kathmandu and around the country because of increasing protests. The UCPN-M and its 33-party alliance with smaller opposition parties called for protests and general strikes last week. The strikes, locally known as “bandh,” force the shut-down of shops, schools, and public transport, and are strictly enforced.

There have also been incidents of arson, mainly against vehicles, and some low-level vandalism, such as throwing rocks and breaking windows. Civil unrest is likely to continue in some form for at least the coming fortnight, as the electorate expresses its frustration with the CA.

In light of the political deadlock, what are the next CA’s chances of success?

As in 2012, if no other options materialize, this CA is likely to dissolve, bringing about another election later this year. If influential partners – specifically India, on which Nepal relies for the majority of its aid and trade in essentials such as fuel and food stuffs – invest in the political process, the next CA is much more likely to come to some agreement.

At 72 percent voter turnout was a record high in November 2013, indicating that the people are hoping for success of this political process.

Alison Evans is Senior Asia Analyst at the global analytics firm IHS.


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