As Nepal Edges Towards New Constitution, Opposition Parties Struggle for Relevance

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Almost a year after Nepal’s second post-monarchy election the government is sticking to its pledge of a new constitution by January 22, 2015. That is still possible, but many in Nepal are skeptical.

After the failure of the first assembly to draft a statute and a year’s delay in organizing another election, several dozen contentious issues faced the second assembly. The chairman of the assembly’s dispute resolution committee says that most of them are settled, but that questions of how to divide Nepal into federal states remain at a stalemate. He told Nepali media this week that political leaders’ “personal ambitions” were the stumbling block.

In theory the differences reflect the parties’ ideologies. During the Maoists’ ten-year insurrection, they stirred up ethnic tensions as a means to weaken the state. Groups that had long felt excluded from power, in particular many people in Nepal’s southern plains where half of the population now lives, responded eagerly to the idea of ethnically-governed federal states.

The government coalition partners, the center-left UML and the center-right Nepali Congress, insist on carving out federal states based on geography and economic viability rather than ethnicity, with no more than 7 divisions. The Maoists and the southern parties are fighting for 11 to 14 states, divided ethnically.

Self-Interest Trumps Principle

That looks ideological, but in Nepal’s personal-power politics, the positions parties take are more about self-interest than principle. If the centrist parties thought that states based on ethnic identity benefited them politically, they would surely take that position. Conversely, if the Maoists thought they would gain power in a federal Nepal with fewer states, then that would be their stand.

There are egos involved too. The Maoists won the largest portion of seats in the first assembly but were reduced to third place after the second election. The embarrassment to the party and, notably, to the party leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal strengthens their resistance: They think they need a major “win” on this issue to remain relevant.

Voters also punished the southern-bloc of parties for their inability to work together in the first assembly, and those parties too are desperate to get their ethnic-federalist agenda into the new constitution.

The ethnically motivated parties and the Maoists are a minority in the assembly, and the coalition could probably get the two-thirds vote that they would need to force their plan for federal states into the statute. But doing that would risk widespread unrest and perhaps violence.

It’s unlikely that Dahal’s Maoists would “return to the jungle,” but a splinter party of Maoists sat out the election, and they might be sufficiently radicalized to take up arms again. The southern plains are home to many small, ethnic militias that could also turn to violence.

And so efforts to find consensus continue, but with ideology, personal ambition, and power politics all working against the goal. Pessimism here about getting a new constitution early next year seems justified.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.