Where to next?The government and the parties should now work to institutionalise the constitution
Amid suspicions, contestations, delays and nationwide protests, the second Constituent Assembly (CA) of Nepal finally promulgated the new constitution with a comfortable two-thirds majority and an active participation of the major political parties. The three major parties—Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, and the UCPN (Maoist)—came to an understanding, and agreed to adopt a new constitution despite their ideological and interest-based disagreements over the content of the proposed constitution. So we must laud their commitment to issue the much awaited basic law of the land through the CA. At the same time, it is worrisome that some groups—mainly Madhes-based political parties, pro-Hindu groups and women rights activists—have been agitating against the state due to their strong reservations on some of the provisions in the new constitution. Similarly, other groups—mainly the Mohan Baidya and Netra Bikram Chand factions of the Maoists—have totally opposed the constitution as well as the constitution-making process.
How the government and the major political parties fulfil their roles in this complex political scenario will determine the country’s future political direction. In particular, the government and the big three parties have six important tasks to perform to institutionalise the new constitution.
First, the big three who took the lead in the constitution-making process need to ensure that the new constitution is owned by all, and not only by certain political parties and groups. This process requires the parties to hold continuous dialogues with the dissatisfied forces, to carefully listen to their grievances and accommodate their concerns and demands to the extent possible. This process cannot be successful when both the contesting parties are not sincere in finding a negotiated solution.
Second, the government and the three parties should do their best to prevent post-constitution violence. Destructive demonstrations have already engulfed the Madhes. Due to the recent attacks on churches, religious tensions have also increased which is a matter of grave concern. The events of the past five weeks show that the state has been involved in brutal repression of organised and unorganised political protests in the Madhes. Demonstrators, on the other hand, have not been peaceful themselves, and this has provided an opportunity for the security forces to quell the unrest brutally in the name of maintaining law and order. Against this backdrop, perseverance of both the opposing parties, particularly the government security forces and the leaders of the three parties, is vital to not worsen the post-constitutional political environment. Winning the hearts and minds of the agitators, expressing commitment to engage in a result-oriented dialogue and finding optimum solutions to the present political tussle the need of the hour.
Third, since the CA has already promulgated a new constitution, it is the prime responsibility of the government and the three major parties to inform the public about its fundamental provisions and convince them on how their individual and group rights have been guaranteed by the document. An effective constitution awareness programme should be conducted at the national and local levels to point out the positive aspects of the new constitution that favours ordinary citizens.
Fourth, although the constitution has been promulgated, it is unclear how and when it will be implemented. Timely implementation of some of the provisions will convince the people that the statute aims to address their immediate concerns, as opposed to spending the initial years engaged in broad constitutional provisions that have no direct impact on their day-to-day lives. One strategy would be a simultaneous implementation of the people’s daily concerns and the broader political agenda. For example, while the government and political parties engage in implementing the power sharing arrangement between the federal and state governments, they should also engage in providing land to landless Dalits. This is a constitutional provision that is directly linked with addressing the concerns of a large segment of society.
Fifth, the government cannot be successful in implementing the constitutional provisions without a strong local democracy, and for this purpose, elections to the local government bodies are vital. There has been no elected local government in Nepal for the past 12 years. Therefore, the government and the three parties must negotiate with the agitating forces to hold local polls as soon as possible so that there is a legitimate local body to directly interact with the people and address their concerns.
Finally, and most importantly, cooperation and collaboration between the major political forces is vital, at least for the next three to five years, to make the new constitution functional. The reason the issuance of the new constitution became possible despite a long political tussle was due to the strong cooperation and collaboration between the major political parties. If similar teamwork continues for some years, effective and timely implementation of the new constitution will be possible.
The political parties should also learn from the past that one of the reasons the constitution of 1990 failed is lack of cooperation and collaboration between the Congress and the UML. Political instability, development failure, armed conflict and authoritarian regime were all an outcome of the lack of a cooperative political culture in the country. Considering this fact, Nepal must practice consensus politics until the federal democratic republican system is institutionalised and the country achieves a certain level of economic growth and development.
Bhattarai holds a Phd in peace and conflict studies