Transforming Nepal into a federalist structure is a complex and time-consuming task. Thaneshwar Bhusal takes a look at why the pace of progress is so slow.
Following the end of a decade of violent Maoist insurgency and the termination of a centuries-old monarchy in 2007, Nepal’s major political parties agreed to transform the country’s traditional unitary system of government into a federal structure. The transformation was branded as a panacea to resolve many of the country’s deeply rooted cultural, racial and economic problems. Ten years since the conceptualisation of federalism and the problems that beset people’s lives are still pervasive, but it is still too early to judge the success or failure of federalism in Nepal only one year on from its institutionalisation.
There has been some notable progress in certain policy areas due to the federalist reform. The inclusion of women, ethnic minorities, Madhèsi, people living with disabilities and those who live in the remote high hills has become a priority for government. The advantageous participation of thousands of ordinary people in the governance of the country has been facilitated through different policy measures. Public sector management has been reoriented towards advancing the lives of deprived, marginalised and lower-caste communities. A significant proportion of annual budgets have been allocated to addressing this, and development plans and sectoral policies have been reformed to achieve these objectives.
The inner core of federalism, as defined in the Interim Constitution of Nepal (2007), and further refined in the Constitution of Nepal (2015), seems to be accelerating, albeit still at a slow pace. However, the outer core, that is the structure of federalism, is not taking shape. There are some fundamental factors that explain why this is the case.
Fundamentally, federalism has always been a fraught topic in Nepal’s public affairs, particularly since the Fifth Amendment to the Interim Constitution. That change created tension among politicians because, while it paved the way for the election of a President and Prime Minister, politicians were unable to find common ground on how to exercise federal governance. Although the prevailing constitution clearly states that the country will have three tiers of government, politicians are unable to reach consensus on, inter alia, the name, geographic boundaries, power sharing structure and resource distribution for these levels of government.
It would be premature to pass judgement on this issue. It was only last year that the Constitution of Nepal officially established the notion of federalism in the country. A number of organisations, processes and arrangements have to be changed or implemented to institutionalise federalism in Nepal. Many of these tasks will take a long time to complete.
Nevertheless, the government has already introduced some robust initiatives to institutionalise federalism. A high-level committee, which involves a number of former technocrats and experts, is working to come up with a local governance structure. The public service is preparing to analyse its existing structure as part of its work to transform into a federal configuration. In other words, there is notable, if slow, progress on transforming Nepal’s unitary governance into a federal structure.
It is important to understand some of the reasons why the institutionalisation of federalism in Nepal is taking time.
First, Nepal has been a unitary country for many centuries, and it is not just mainstream governance but other aspects of society that are structured according to this principle. People have orientated their lives towards receiving direction from ‘Kathmandu’ and it takes a long time for each and every aspect of this situation to be transformed into a federal structure.
Second, almost all of the political parties in Nepal have an explicitly centralised structure. If political parties themselves are reluctant to transform, the overall process is delayed, if not obstructed. Only a few political parties have decided that their main decision-making apparatus will be restructured in line with plans to restructure the state. Political parties are showing little interest in restructuring their key entities based on federalism, partly because they have less democracy within their political organisations and partly due to the complex rules to be followed in making decisions on restructuring.
Third, public administration is the vanguard when it comes to the implementation of federalism. The civil service, police, military and teachers are ubiquitously centralised and have a very stiff vertical hierarchy. The foremost problem for these entities is that despite 10 years of planning for federalism they have not made preparations to convert into a federal structure. Studies suggest that these entities fear that they will lose authority and power in the new governance structure. These sort of deeply-held ideas inevitably require time to change.
Fourth, there has been a continuous political vacuum at the local level as no local elections have been held for districts, municipalities or villages since 1997. This chaos has weakened demand-side governance, which has certainly hindered the implementation of federalism. Local politicians are now powerless. Appointed bureaucrats are running political organisations at a local level. The essence and meaning of federalism is, therefore, not being fully communicated to those communities who would unquestionably apply pressure for the establishment of federal institutions.
Finally, the frequency of ‘government change’ has brought political instability and discontinuity. In the name of consensus-based politics, politicians at the centre are seeking consensus on the issue of a federal structure, which seems to be impossible to achieve. At some point serious intervention will be required. The question is to what extent that intervention will be democratic, consensus-based and politically competitive.