Calls for constitutional reform intensifyIn 8 years, parties have shown little commitment to safeguarding charter, say observers.
When the federal republican constitution of Nepal was promulgated on September 20, 2015, the political parties promised to bring ‘Singha Durbar to people’s doorsteps’. Yet, eight years on, provincial and local governments have seen their powers curtailed by the federal government.
Nepal marks Constitution Day on Wednesday, but celebrations this year have been extended to three days—September 19, 20 and 21.
The implementation of the constitution that has traversed a journey of almost a decade has witnessed several ups and downs. The failure of Nepali politicians to uphold constitutional obligations has raised many questions among the public.
Khim Lal Devkota, a federalism expert and former National Assembly member, said the political leadership does not appear serious about effective implementation of federalism, the main pillar of the constitution.
The condition of provincial governance is worrisome, further complicating the picture. “The provincial structures envisioned by the constitution have faltered and are inactive. Many laws related to the police and civil service are yet to be promulgated,” Devkota said.
“The centre has been unnecessarily meddling in the affairs and powers of the lower levels [provinces and local units].”
Concerns over broader acceptance of the constitution remain, according to observers.
Political analyst Bhaskar Gautam said the constitution was promulgated despite disagreements from various sections of society, leading to protracted protests. Even the fundamental principles of federalism envisioned by the constitution were not adequately and extensively discussed.
“Even with the passage of time, the issue remains unaddressed, and no substantive effort has been made to shore up federalism and implement the constitution,” Gautam added. “The collective commitment to invigorate the constitution has been missing.”
Observers say the major parties rushed the constitution, disregarding opposition from various sections of society. And, the parties have shown minimal commitment to safeguarding it. Even those who did, used the constitution as a bargaining chip, they say.
“Those who protested against the flaws of the constitution did not do so genuinely. They voiced their agendas merely for garnering power and to serve their own vested political interests,” said Gautam. “Such forces could not stick to their original agendas for long.”
The Madhesh-based parties, in particular, were up in arms against the new constitution. They even boycotted the celebrations and marked the day as a ‘black day’. This year, too, the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party has declared it as a black day.
“As our demands have not been addressed through constitutional amendments, we request you to stage protests in your respective districts on Ashoj 3 [September 19],” reads a statement issued by party chair Mahantha Thakur.
Nepal has seen seven constitutions until now: 1) Government of Nepal Act, 1948 2) Interim Government of Nepal Act, 1951, 3) The Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal, 1959 4) The Constitution of Nepal, 1962, 5) The Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 1990, 6) The Interim Constitution of Nepal, 2007, and, 7) The Constitution of Nepal 2072.
Former Speaker Daman Nath Dhungana said while transitioning to a new constitution, there should have been absolute clarity on what was lacking in the previous constitutions.
The major characteristics of the 2015 constitution are federalism, republicanism, and inclusiveness. “They are radical departures from the 1990 constitution, ones that changed the overall structure of the state. But during such departures and radical changes, the constitution must be implemented fully to yield favourable outcomes. Sadly, that has not been the case,” said Dhungana.
The first elections under the constitution in 2017 led to the formation of a government under KP Sharma Oli, the chief of the CPN-UML. The government, in coalition with the Maoist Centre, was historically strong, backed by an almost two-thirds majority. It was mandated to strengthen federalism, but they did just the opposite.
The Nepali Congress and the Maoist Centre, taking umbrage at Oli’s unconstitutional actions, returned to power in July, 2021. Their tenure was also no different as they lacked the commitment to implementing the constitution. They showed very little interest in doing so.
Observers say effective implementation of the constitution is impossible without the democratic institutions, including Parliament, functioning effectively. But Nepal’s Parliament has been failing to pass laws and has become the plotform for making and unmaking governments. Public concerns rarely figure prominently on parliamentarians' agenda, and that has downplayed the spirit of the constitution.
The last general elections hinted at a change. Some new political parties registered impressive victories, trouncing the long-established traditional forces. Even so, Parliament, which is a democratic institution having a major role to play in strengthening the constitution, has failed to work effectively.
Two dissolutions, frequent disruptions and the reluctance of governments to provide business left over half the tenure of the previous House of Representatives largely fruitless.
Dhungana said that some anti-constitutional activities, such as House dissolution, have also weakened the spirit of the constitution. “And many events have compelled the court to exercise the rights of Parliament.”
He added: “Recent governments and parliamentary politics have been driven by instability and opportunism. These actions have departed from the spirit of the constitution and failed to give a sense of stability.”
The 28 meetings held in a span of nearly four months—the first session of the Parliament elected last year—were limited mainly to allowing lawmakers to put forth their views in emergency time, special time and zero hour. It couldn’t endorse a single bill.
Devkota stresses that the centre should be focused on policy, the provinces on development and the local level on delivery as per the spirit of the constitution.
However, some positive changes have occurred as well after the constitution's promulgation, according to observers. Government services have reached people’s doorsteps, and there has been a comparative peace and stability since the country fought a decade- long insurgency. The constitution has raised the issues of inclusion, women participation and democratic practice.
But one lingering question concerning the implementation of the constitution is why many crucial provisions such as granting every citizen the right to free, and compulsory education up to the basic level (until grade 8) and free education up to the secondary level (grade 12) by the State, remain unimplemented.
Amid such a situation, observers have recommended a thorough review of the constitution.
“We also need to improve the constitution to make it up to date,” Devkota said.
“There must be an agreement among major political parties to review the constitution, and the required amendments must also be made. Otherwise, this constitution may also suffer an untimely demise just like the previous ones,” Dhungana added.