For the first time since the tiny Gorkha kingdom conquered the mini-states of the Himalaya in the 18th century, Nepal has this year seriously attempted to devolve power away from the capital Kathmandu to provinces and municipalities. Elections in newly-created local bodies with wide-ranging power were concluded in September. Today, for the first ever, elections to the seven provinces in addition to the national parliament, will be concluded.
As much as 40 per cent of the national and provincial parliaments will be chosen through proportional representation, which is determined by the share of different ethnic groups in the country’s population. Most importantly, with these elections Nepal has completed its transition from a unitary state to a federal republic.
These changes seemed improbable just a decade ago. Certainly, it will take many years for the impact of these changes to make their mark on the society. Today’s elections are the first under the new Constitution, and proof of the fact that, at least on theory, Nepal’s political system is modernizing.
In practice, not so much. The federal model is meant to address the marginalization that Nepal’s diverse religious and ethnic groups — from Limbus in the east to Tharus in the west — have long felt by the rulers in Kathmandu. For decades, perhaps even centuries, the capital’s politics has been dominated by high-caste Hindu men with roots in the hills — defined in the new Constitution as Khas Arya — that has tended towards monopolizing power at the exclusion of women, Dalits, Madhesis and janjatis or indigenous peoples who live in different parts of the country. The great promise of the federal system was that it would address at least some of the imbalances and make Nepal a more inclusive democracy.
The burden of that promise was heavy. How to federalize Nepal was the dominant issue in the Constitution-making process, except that the first Constituent Assembly dissolved in 2012 without framing a Constitution, leading to the second Assembly which was elected in 2013.
But is the new federal set-up, whose foundation is being laid by these elections, being gerrymandered to continue the dominance of the Khas Arya, in the new Nepal? That is the biggest fear of the less powerful communities, among them Madhesis and Tharus. These two groups had most fiercely opposed the provincial boundaries of the new constitution in 2015, a protest which led to a virtual blockade of goods in large parts of the Madhes and in which more than 50 people were killed.
In the state-led crackdown that followed, security forces carried out several human rights violations without impunity. For example, in the Tharu-majority Kailali district in the Terai, the crackdown by security forces after eight of their compatriots were killed by unknown masked men was so severe, that villagers protested the state persecution as being worse than during the “civil war” period in Nepal.
The republic acted just like the monarchy. With the transitional justice mechanisms to address war-time crimes in continued disarray, Tharus remain traumatised by those memories.
The situation was worse in the eastern and central Terai, where the Madhesi blockade, unofficially backed by India, backfired and fizzled out despite the fact that more than 50 Madhesi protesters were shot dead by security forces.
Neither the Madhesis nor the Tharus have, in the new Constitution, secured the right to representation according to their population, which is a basic principle of democracy.
Certainly, Constitution-making is the time a country takes to establish its most cherished principles. But in Kathmandu, the Constituent Assembly ratified the constitution in such a hurry, with the Speaker rattling off hundreds of articles in a day with no time for discussions, that the scene appeared rather more fitting for a dictatorship.
Domestic and international pressure weighed in, compelling all parties to amend at least some of its most glaring inconsistencies, such as proportionately including all ethnic groups – allocating them quotas – in the state apparatus. But other equally disturbing features, ranging from the sexist and restrictive provisions on women’s rights who cannot pass on citizenship rights to their children (only fathers can do so).
The essential problem, of changing state boundaries to reflect ethnic and language diversity was not touched, as the politically powerful Khas Arya in the ‘pahad’ wondered if the populous Madhesi would consolidate power if provincial boundaries were redrawn on the basis of ethnic populations.
The political parties seeking amendment to that provincial boundary clause in the Constitution, particularly the Madhesis, had a choice – boycott the elections and embark on a long struggle with the state or participate in the elections and hope for a share of state power. They chose elections.
For now, the new chapter looks suspiciously like the old. The dream of inclusion appears elusive in the new federal republic. The current prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, for example, is in his fourth stint and campaigning to get the post for the fifth time. Five former prime minister are also contesting, each aspiring to the same goal. All of them are Khas Arya — the same high-caste Hindu group that comprises one-third of the population that has held power in Kathmandu for more than two hundred years of the country’s history.
With the exclusion of minorities, women, and sometimes even the young people in the major political parties, the run up to the election has been dull. All the big parties, controlled by men, have repeated the same development slogans Nepalis have been hearing for decades. Despite rampant discrimination and disparities, social justice just doesn’t feature on their agenda.
Neither does the terrible state of public education, health, or the raging crisis of unemployment that has made migrants out of millions of Nepali youth toiling in India, the Middle East, and Malaysia. In fact, the major parties have such low regard for the masses and public opinion that they have even fielded some well-known gangsters. This is not surprising. As the anti-corruption crusader Dr Govinda KC points out, the politicians — not to mention the power wielders in other state organs — have invested heavily in for-profit education, healthcare, and labour-exporting companies.
Nevertheless, given how rigid and centralized political power has operated in Nepal, today’s elections are an important milestone. For the first time history, the institutional design favors devolution of power. With time, provinces and local bodies will realize the extent and limits of their power and bargain hard with rulers in Kathmandu for more policy autonomy to manage resources and development planning.
In the context of the politics of the last decade, no matter how reluctant the reactionary establishment was in delaying the state restructuring promised in the peace agreement that ended the civil war, these elections represent a victory for those seeking a more inclusive democracy. For the new federal system to yield results for the poor and the marginalized, one can only hope that the people who get to vote — for millions of internal and external migrants are disenfranchised — vote wisely to choose a new generation of leaders.