The Geopolitics of Nepal's Federal Structure
Image Credit: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

The Geopolitics of Nepal's Federal Structure

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The sharp divisions among major domestic political actors and increasing regional interests have made the settlement of a federal agenda more complicated in Nepal, as the deadline for adopting a constitution draws closer.

The national parties have already made a public commitment to deliver a new constitution by January 22, 2015. But differences over the federal structure have yet to be narrowed down, which is raising doubts as to whether the constitution can be promulgated in time.

In 2007, Nepal announced that it would transform from a unified monarchy into a federalized republic, with the goal of ending all forms of discrimination by providing rights to marginalized communities. However, sharp divisions over the form, number and names of federal units continue to delay the process of drafting and adopting the constitution. This painful delay in institutionalizing federalism, republicanism and secularism has prolonged the country’s transitional phase, which has in turn badly affected its economic growth and development.

First, the CA elected in 2008 failed to deliver a new constitution despite four years of continuous attempts. The parties then held a second CA in 2013 promising to write a new constitution.  Now this second CA is similarly stalled at the statute drafting process, except for taking ownership of progress made by the previous CA on certain minor issues.

Domestically, parties are sharply divided over the form of federalism. Meanwhile, there is the profound interest of Nepal’s two giant neighbors on the matter. Both India and China – which are competing for influence within the Himalayan state – are pressuring Nepal to adopt a federal system in a form that they see as best for their security.

India and China have conveyed their positions to the top leaders of the major parties, despite their public insistence that they will not interfere in Nepal’s internal affairs. Both countries want fewer provinces on their border so that it will be easy to deal with security and other vital interests.

China has suggested to Nepal’s political parties that ethnicity-based federalism could be harmful for the country and should be avoided. The opposition UCPN (Maoist) party Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal told Nepal’s media after a visit to China in 2013 that Beijing was concerned that federalism would create further problems in Nepal. He said Chinese leaders suggested holding further discussions on the type of federalism; mainly the relationship between the center and provinces. Chinese leaders also expressed the fear that federalism could lead to Nepal’s disintegration.

Beijing pressed the parties to leave fewer provinces along its border, with its main concern being that any political instability that may erupt after federalism is instituted would create troubles in Tibet. China believes that if federalism creates more problems, there will be a rise in anti-China activities. Beijing is accusing Western countries of funding anti-China activities in Nepal.

India has more influence that China does in Nepal’s internal affairs, and wants only one or two provinces in Nepal’s southern belt area, known as Madhesh-Terai. Traditionally, India dealt with Nepal through its bureaucracy and intelligence agencies. since Narendra Modi became prime minister this year, however, New Delhi has begun to deal with the issue on a political level.

India has been conveying its interest in federalism mainly through Madhesi-based regional parties. Nepal shares an open, unregulated border with India. In a recent visit to Nepal, Indian Home Minister Rajmath Singh expressed concern regarding Nepal’s federal structure, and suggested the parties not use ethnicity-based federal structures.

Political leaders argue that non-cooperation or even interference from both countries was a major factor in the dissolution of the first CA in May 2012, which failed to deliver a new constitution. The issue then was also federalism, an issue that continues to sharply divide ruling and opposition parties.

An opposition front led by the UCPN wants a single ethnicity-based federalism. The ruling Nepali Congress and CPN-UML parties flatly reject the idea, arguing that ethnicity-based federalism would create tension among ethnic castes and communities. The opposition parties want 10 or 14 provinces, but the ruling parties say the country cannot sustain more than seven provinces in the new constitution.

The ruling parties also say ethnicity-based federalism would invite confrontation, as Nepal is a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country.  The debate among the parties over whether to base federalism upon ethnicity or a common identity is in fact more intense than any disagreement over the number of provinces.

According to the CA calendar, the parties were supposed to have a first draft of the new constitution by mid-October, and then start the process of soliciting views from the public. The parties have missed this deadline, mainly due to their differences over federalism.  Without a consensus, a constitution by January 22 will not be possible. Party leaders and observes often suggest holding talks with India and China to incorporate their concerns, but there has been no progress.

The ruling Nepali Congress and CPN-UML parties, which command two-thirds of the CA seats, want to settle contentious issues through a voting process, while opposition parties are demanding consensus.

Adopting a constitution through the CA is a major component of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended a violent 10-year Maoist insurgency that claimed the lives of more than 13,000 people. The peace process will conclude only with the adoption of a new constitution, which would be the sixth in 65 years. Nepal currently has an interim constitution, adopted in 2007 to replace the 1990 constitution that institutionalized a constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy.

Both India and China want Nepal to have a powerful center with a federal structure, which would make it easier for them to deal with the country. Political analysts and observers say it will be difficult to bridge the differences among the parties while also dealing with the interests in neighboring countries on the federalism decision. Indeed, there are forces in Nepal that oppose federalism altogether, and public doubts are rising now that the parties have already missed several deadlines for drafting the constitution.

In addition to federalism, Nepal is struggling with disputes over the form of the government, judiciary and electoral system, although leaders say these issues can be resolved. The fate of the new constitution largely depends on how parties handle the issue of federalism – and the behavior of Nepal’s neighbors.

Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Kathmandu-based journalist closely following Nepal’s peace and constitution drafting process. He often writes for international media on the political and social issues of Nepal.

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