Factionalism Remains Nepal’s Largest Problem

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The term of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly ended on May 27 without the body having drafted a new constitution. Factional and inter-party disagreements over a handful of major issues led to the failure, and the same forces are still at work.

One hundred days later, there is no progress on constitutional issues and no parliament. (The CA served that function as well as drafting the constitution.) Without a parliament, appointments to the Supreme Court and government agencies such as the anti-corruption watchdog cannot be made, and ambassadorial berths cannot be filled – the interim constitution requires a parliamentary hearing for most appointments. No laws can be passed, and without a parliament to amend the interim constitution, just how parliament could be re-convened or new elections held is unclear.

And there is no agreed road map to get out of the mess. Talks were convened recently that aim at reaching agreement on the remaining major constitutional issues. With such consensus, reinstating parliament or calling a new election would perhaps be within the president’s constitutional powers. The interim constitution repeatedly calls for consensus decisions, and it also give the president some special powers.

But the parties are far from reaching agreement. So far from it in fact that they cannot even agree within their own ranks. The Maoists are the most unified party, but only because a significant faction split off in June and formed their own party. The Maoists say they could accept either reinstatement or elections, but only if the other parties concede their proposal for federal states divided by and named for specific ethnic groups.

This issue is the most divisive and largest of the unsettled constitutional questions. All political forces in Nepal except the few remaining royalists have agreed on federalism, but many politicians in the center-left and center-right parties think that ethnic states are impractical because they ignore basic economics and undesirable because they promote ethnic divisions rather than nationalism.

The UML favors either new elections or parliamentary reinstatement, depending on which leader you listen to and which day of the week it is. They can’t come to a real decision partly because of a general lack of principles and partly because of a minority faction of leaders who favor pure ethnic states. (The party position calls for a double-ethnic naming system, an awkward attempt to compromise.) The “rebellion” will be settled eventually, and perhaps then party will choose between the parliamentary options. Until then the UML presents an attractive target to the Maoists, who fan the flames to weaken their rivals and promote the ethnic-states plan.

The Congress party is in even worse condition. Per the terms of a spring agreement with the government, Congress expects to head the next administration. The top three leaders in the party all desperately want the post, and none is willing to cede to the others. The three favor, variously, the double-ethnic proposal and a slightly different arrangement of states and borders with geographical rather than ethnic identities.

Critically though, all the constitutional issues are less important to the Congress leadership than who gets tipped to be the next prime minister. The party will not be a significant force in consensus on the federal map or any other constitutional issue until they patch up their three factions and negotiate with unity.

And without consensus on at least some of the issues, neither parliamentary reinstatement nor new elections will happen, even if each party managed somehow to reach a decision on which option it favors.

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