Is Nepal’s new political stability built on firm foundations?

Constitutional change has brought new optimism, but also a few problems

Hemant R Ojha, Kushal Pokharel, Jagannath Adhikari

Government and governance | Asia, East Asia, South Asia

30 April 2018

Change is happening rapidly in Nepal with a new federal structure of government, a devolution of authority, and greater inclusivity bringing increased peace and stability. Hemant R Ojha, Jagannath Adhikari, and Kushal Pokharel take a look at whether the change is likely to last.

In 2002, Nepal’s newspapers covered news of royal massacre, clashes between Maoist rebels and government forces, and the suspension of elected governments. Today, the country’s leaders talk about political struggles being over and the onset of a new era of economic development.

This sounds like big progress, but is Nepal really making such headway? And if it is, will the new-found peace last?

In 2006, the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Maoists and the then Seven Party Alliances marked the end of a decade-long civil war in Nepal that claimed the lives of more than 16,000 people.

After a decade of perilous transition, in 2015 the country adopted a new constitution – the first ever prepared by the elected council. Soon after, elections for three tiers of government were held, as enshrined in the new constitution.

Nepal is now in the hands of elected leaders who seem to have a greater sense of accountability. The wider mass of people who agitated against previous regimes are also getting tuned to electoral democracy. With elections, street violence and street protests have declined, as has the frequency of strikes – previously a major concern.

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Indeed, the country is moving to a new era of more stable governance. Before the adoption of the new constitution, Nepal changed its government 28 times in 20 years. In recognition of past instability, the constitution bars no confidence motions against the prime minister for the first two years of his or her term. More importantly, the Maoist party which raged violent civil war is fully integrated into the democratic political system.

A new mid-tier government – the province – has been instituted, in response to the demand for inclusive governance. And for the first time, all three tiers of governments (national, provincial, and local) have been elected. This is quite a turn-around from previous decades, in which local elections did not happen for nearly 20 years and the national government was highly instable. The local elections of 2017 saw a strong turnout of more than 70 per cent of voters.

In an unprecedented move, the new constitution devolves authority to the provincial and local levels in order to embrace the ethnic, linguistic, caste and gender diversity of the country. Provision of the separate and concurrent powers among the three levels in the constitution guarantees the right to autonomy and self-rule, but how these will be activated is yet to be seen.

Local governments have a constitutionally guaranteed tenure of five years, bringing a new era of stable local governance. Unlike many other countries, the local governments are constitutionally defined entities with both executive and legislative powers. With this structure of government, local governments have further power in development planning and resource allocation. Khotehang Gaupalika in east Nepal, for example, approved a budget of over Rs 30 million (US $284,000) for areas to which they would like to allocate funds.

More interestingly, their sectoral allocations are a stark contrast from the previous practice under nationally controlled budget allocation. For the first time in history, local governments have exercised power in making decisions about their future.

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The new constitution also has requirements for increased social inclusion. The new Local Governance Act 2017 stipulates that at least 40 per cent of seats in local governments and 50 per cent of executive positions should be held by women. Additionally, any one of two key decision making roles (Chair and General Secretary or Vice-Chair) should go to women. Similarly, there is positive discrimination in political positions and the public service for poor and marginalised communities, including indigenous communities, roughly in proportion to their share in the population. These provisions aim to directly address the root causes of Maoist rebellion in the past.

Maturity among the key political leaders also seems to be growing. Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, who was considered to be resistant to the concerns of Madhesis (people living in the plains), has now expressed his view that the constitution can be changed if Madhesis have serious and relevant objections.

The personality clashes that used to fragment Nepali politics have, to some extent, been mitigated by the increase in the number of political positions across the provincial and local levels. While this is adding financial burden, it has also helped contesting leaders to have their positions secured and hence reduce the chances of infighting.

Similarly, one of the sources of government instability was the existence of a large number of political parties, which were usually cobbled together to form a government. These parties would then change sides and regularly topple the coalition. This problem has been partly mitigated by a provision that only groups that receive at least 3 per cent of the vote in the election may be counted as a political party. Also, parties are being regrouped according to ideology, moving away from the constantly shifting alliances of the past.

However, there are also fears that the country’s new-found stability could just be temporary. One major challenge to stability is financial problems. The move to a federal political system has made government bigger and in need of greater resources.

Another major area of concern is the formation of provincial government – a new practice for Nepal, which has not been tested yet. Moreover, how India and China will behave in relation to Nepal is also an important external factor in sustaining Nepal’s stability.

Although Nepal’s new political arrangement seems to provide for stable government and economic progress, the system is still not fully time-tested. It has, however, brought a new optimism in the country’s governance that has strengthened the trust in politics. If this trust can be restored in many of the problematic states, there could be a hope of sustained peace and prosperity.

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