Change is happening rapidly in Nepal with a new federal structure of government, decentralization of authority and greater inclusiveness bringing greater peace and stability. Hemant R Ojha, Jagannath Adhikari and Kushal Pokharel examine whether the change is likely to last.
In 2002, Nepalese newspapers covered news of the royal massacre, clashes between Maoist rebels and government forces, and the suspension of elected governments. Today, the country’s leaders speak of the end of political struggles and the start of a new era of economic development.
It sounds like a big step forward, but is Nepal really making such progress? And if so, will the restored peace last?
In 2006, the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Maoists and then-seven-party alliances marked the end of a ten-year civil war in Nepal that claimed the lives of over 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 levels of government were held, as provided for in the new constitution.
Nepal is now in the hands of elected leaders who seem to have a greater sense of responsibility. The larger mass of people who mobilized against previous regimes are also getting used to electoral democracy. With the elections, violence on the streets and street protests decreased, as did the frequency of strikes – previously a major concern.
Indeed, the country is entering a new era of more stable governance. Before the adoption of the new constitution, Nepal changed governments 28 times in 20 years. In recognition of past instability, the constitution prohibits no-confidence motions against the prime minister during the first two years of his term. More importantly, the Maoist party that has raged a violent civil war is fully integrated into the democratic political system.
A new intermediary government – the province – has been instituted, in response to the demand for inclusive governance. And for the first time, the three levels of government (national, provincial and local) were elected. This is a turnaround from previous decades, in which local elections had not taken place for almost 20 years and the national government was very unstable. The 2017 local elections saw a strong turnout of over 70% of voters.
In an unprecedented move, the new constitution delegates authority to the provincial and local levels to embrace the country’s ethnic, linguistic, caste and gender diversity. The provision of separate and competing powers between the three levels of the constitution guarantees the right to autonomy and autonomy, but how these will be activated remains to be seen.
Local governments have a constitutionally guaranteed five-year term, ushering in a new era of stable local governance. Unlike many other countries, local governments are constitutionally defined entities with both executive and legislative powers. With this government structure, local governments have more power in development planning and resource allocation. Khotehang Gaupalika in eastern Nepal, for example, has approved a budget of over 30 million rupees (US $ 284,000) for areas they would like to allocate funds to.
More interestingly, their sector allocations contrast sharply with the previous practice within the framework of a budget allocation controlled at the national level. For the first time in history, local governments wielded the power to make decisions about their future.
The new constitution also has requirements for increased social inclusion. The new 2017 law on local governance stipulates that at least 40 percent of seats in local governments and 50 percent of managerial positions must be held by women. In addition, one of the two key decision-making roles (president and secretary general or vice-president) should go to women. Likewise, there is affirmative action in political and public service positions for poor and marginalized communities, including indigenous communities, roughly in proportion to their share in the population. These provisions aim to directly address the root causes of the Maoist rebellion in the past.
Maturity among key political leaders also appears to be increasing. Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, who was seen as resistant to the concerns of the Madhesis (people living on the plains), has now expressed his view that the constitution can be changed if Madhesis has serious and relevant objections.
The personality conflicts that fragmented Nepalese politics have to some extent been mitigated by the increase in the number of political posts at the provincial and local levels. While this adds a financial burden, it also helped the contending leaders secure their positions and thus reduce the risk of internal strife.
Likewise, 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 switch sides and regularly overthrow the coalition. This problem has been partly mitigated by a provision that only groups which obtain at least 3% of the vote in the election can be counted as a political party. In addition, parties are regrouping according to ideology, moving away from the ever-changing alliances of the past.
However, there are also fears that the country’s regained stability will only be temporary. Financial problems are a major challenge to stability. The shift to a federal political system has made government bigger and needs more resources.
Another area of major concern is the formation of a provincial government – a new practice for Nepal, which has yet to be tested. In addition, the behavior of India and China towards Nepal is also an important external factor for maintaining the stability of Nepal.
Although Nepal’s new political arrangement appears to ensure stable government and economic progress, the system has yet to be proven. It has, however, brought a new optimism in the governance of the country which has strengthened confidence in politics. If this confidence can be restored in many problematic states, there could be hope for lasting peace and prosperity.