Nepal’s Quest for Stability
Kamal Dev Bhattarai, Journalist, The Kathmandu Post
The constitution of 1990 of Nepal was regarded a good constitutions. But, it failed to institutionalize the nascent democracy in the country. The political instability that started in the early nineties with the eruption of Maoist insurgency and frequent government changes still continues.
In 2007, the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists decided to overthrow the Monarchy and draft a new constitution through the Constituent Assembly (CA). There was a hope that this political development would lead the country towards stability, but it proved not to be the case. Today, the Monarchy has ceased to govern and three major parties, the Nepali Congress, CPN-UML (Communist Party of Nepal) and CPN (Maoist Centre) are ruling the country on a rotational basis. In the last 26 years, 25 governments were formed which clearly indicates severe instability in the country.
Nine years after signing the peace accord with the rebel Maoist party, Nepal adopted a new constitution on September 20, 2015 with a hope that it would bring much-awaited political stability and economic development. Nepal spent seven years drafting this, holding two Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, spending billions of rupees.
It has been almost one year since the promulgation of the constitution but again, there are no signs of stability in the country. Instead, there are possibilities of further crises and instability in near future if urgent steps are not taken to hold elections as per the constitutional provisions.
The new constitution clearly indicates that the current Parliament will be dissolved on January 22, 2018. This means that within the next 18 months, Nepal will have to conduct three elections- local, provincial and central- to avoid a constitutional crisis – a challenging job for political parties which are always squabbling to ascend to power.
Today, the political situation is exceedingly messy. Frequent government changes are affecting governance and development. The country’s GDP is expected to grow only 1.5% for the fiscal year of 2015-2016. Unemployment and corruption are ram- pant. According to government data, every day 1500 young people fly abroad seeking employment.
The reconstruction of structures damaged by the earthquake in 2015 and rehabilitation of affect- ed people who are living in painful conditions in temporary, makeshift housing, compromising their health, is progressing slowly. The health and education sector has been badly hit and has yet to recover from the catastrophic events in 2015. The roots of all these problems are political. Once the constitution was promulgated, some Madhes-based parties in the southern belt bordering with India protested, saying that the charter excluded their demands.
As they centred their protests along the border and therefore disrupted trade, the supply system of the country was badly affected. There was tacit support of India in the movement of the Madhes-based parties, who demanded two provinces of the southern belt known as Madhes. India’s main interest, for security reasons, is stability in the region.
The border blockade lasted for four months and it badly affected the economy and supply system as two-third of Nepal’s trade is with India. In the pro- longed Madhes movement, over 50 people died and there was still no sign of compromise between the major parties that backed the current constitutional arrangement and the Madhes-based parties.
Although there is an amendment in the constitution to address the demands of Madhes-based par- ties, they are saying that it only partially fulfils their demands. According to them, revisiting the demarcation of federal units is their key demand which is yet to be fulfilled even with the amendment.
The CPN-UML Chairman KP Oli-led government, which was backed by the Maoist party, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda failed to make any progress on the demarcation issue.
The problem has been prolonged as the major par- ties Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Centre) are themselves not clear on the demands of Madhes-based parties.
They could neither ignore the demands of Madhes-based parties, nor could they come up with any blueprint for a solution of the conflict. This is be- cause of their election strategy. None of the three parties is in favour of redrawing the provinces as per the demand of the Madhes-based parties, but they cannot speak about it as they fear losing their votes in Madhes.
Now, there is a new alliance between Nepali Congress and CPN (Maoist Centre) led by Prachanda. The new alliance has promised to address the demands of Madhes-based parties through the constitutional amendment. In return, Madhes-based parties have supported Prachanda for the new prime minister.
The promulgation of the constitution has not only triggered a domestic crisis but also a diplomatic cri- sis. India, a close neighbour which shares historical, cultural and geographical ties with Nepal, became dissatisfied with the constitution promulgation.
On the day the constitution was promulgated, India did not welcome it, it only noted it. After that, India pressed Nepal to fulfil the demands of the Madhes-based parties and there was tacit support on the border blockade of Madhes-based parties.
The relation between then Prime Minister KP Oli and India soured. After Oli visited India in February this year, the relation between the two countries headed towards normalisation, but in the end, not much progress was made.
Later, Nepal abruptly cancelled President Bidhya Devi Bhandari’s visit without prior information to India which soured the relation between the two countries further.
The Oli-led government cancelled the visit, saying that India tried to topple the government in Ne- pal which is very difficult to verify. Oli is still saying that India is unnecessarily interfering into the domestic affairs of the country.
Oli blamed India for the blockade of the border, while India maintained that Nepal needs to make its constitution inclusive, accommodating the agitating parties. After increasing obstacles in the traditional supply system, Oli looked to China to bring in petroleum products.
The Oli government imported some petroleum products from China but it was not sufficient to fully meet Nepal’s demands. Later, Oli signed a Trade and Transit Treaty deal with China, ending India’s monopoly in Nepal’s supply system. Though it is not possible yet to import sufficiently from China due to the lack of infrastructure, it has been taken as a positive step across the political parties. India, how- ever, believed that the Oli-led government played its China card against India like King Mahendra did in the 1960s.
China however welcomed the promulgation of the new constitution in Nepal and provided assistance during this period. Whilst the relations to India suffered during the KP Oli government, there is now a new government led by Prachanda. There are reports that India has supported the formation of this new government and both, Prachanda and India are keen to improve relations in the days ahead.
Now, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda has a major challenge of maintaining a balanced relation with two neighbours India and China. As a positive gesture, PM Dahal decided to send Deputy Prime Ministers Bimalendra Nidhi and Krishna Bahadur Mahara to India and China to brief their neighbours about the recent political changes in Nepal.
Both India and China are working to make Da- hal’s government favourable to them. India, on the one hand, wants to minimize Chinese influence through Dahal’s premiership, China, on the other hand, wants to continue its influence in Nepal.
Dahal is under domestic pressure to implement the trade and transit agreement signed with China but he does not want relations with India to deteriorate.In an interview, Prachanda has already said that he would implement the agreement signed with China. Along with trade and transit, there are other issues such as railway, roads and some airport projects that China wants to implement with the new government in Nepal.
As both neighbouring countries are making rap- id economic progress, Nepal needs to benefit from it through a balanced approach. In 2009, Prachanda resigned from his first period as prime minister ac- cusing India of playing a game to topple his government.
After stepping down, Prachanda became closer with China, while now, with his second time in of- fice, relations between India and him have improved significantly. However, it seems that there will not be any better relations, until Dahal addresses the demands of Mahdes-based parties.
With maintaining diplomatic balance, Dahal’s first priority is holding the local body election with- in his next 9 months, which is a key challenge. The now second largest party CPN-UML is fiercely criticizing the government saying that it is backed by India.
Without support of UML, it is very difficult to hold local body elections. However, without ad- dressing the demands of Madhes-based parties, it seems impossible to create an environment conducive to proper elections.
Similarly, restructuring the local bodies is another issue. Formulation of laws required for holding the election is another potential obstacle to holding the elections on time.
Another challenge for Prachanda is to provide the relief packages to people affected by the earthquake. Though it has been one and half years since the devastating earthquake hit the country, people are yet to get government- pledged money to build their houses. The erstwhile government led by Oli also faced criticism for being very slow in responding to the catastrophe regarding reconstruction and rehabilitation.
There has been agreement that Prachanda will have to handover the leadership of government to Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba. The Deuba-led government will be responsible for holding the provincial and national elections within the next nine months.
In conclusion, it is obvious that there is influence of India and China in domestic affairs in Nepal. Ne- pal will have to keep an excellent relation with both countries to take maximum benefit from them. At the same time, parties need to focus their attention on holding the elections to save the country from a constitutional crisis.