No looking backThere has to be pluralism and inclusion in federalism which are its primary values
Nepal has experimented with varied political ideologies, from Rana oligarchy, guided democracy and constitutional monarchy to absolute monarchy and now federalism, each brought about by a people’s movement. The transformation from a unitary to a federal structure is a unique experience for Nepal which can be categorised as imposed federation. Federalism came as a by-product of domestic conflict to help prevent and resolve the conflict and maintain social harmony by addressing social ills of suppression and marginalisation. The promulgation of a new constitution and the restructuring of the country into federal states and local units was directed toward that end.
Usually, nation states unite in a federation; but in Nepal, a unitary state was fragmented and reconstituted into seven federal states. The seven provinces were delineated according to administrative and geographical convenience, each containing a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual population. The inability of the provinces to give themselves a name even a year after the elections and formation of provincial governments speaks volumes about the complexities and contradictions they hold.
Since pluralism and inclusion are the fundamental values of federalism, its successful implementation lies in managing the core issues that have been embedded for centuries in the social hierarchies by the tyranny of the majority. In a federal system, the ultimate political and legal authority lies at the multiple levels of government with the principle of shared rule through common institutions and territorial self-rule. In a democratic regime, territorial self-rule assumes the presence of directly elected sub-national legislatures. In Nepal, elections have been completed, and federal and provincial governments have been formed. Federalism has entered the second phase, and what remains to be done is completing structural adjustment with a functioning system and administrative and legislative tools.
Federalism is not a panacea for all the ills of society and governance. Critics believe empowering minority nationalist elites by giving them political, administrative, economic and fiscal resources may lead to demands for further autonomy, and even secession or disintegration. Once a cluster of economic regions begins to flourish more than others, demand for greater autonomy in economic decisions may lead to demand for greater political autonomy as has happened in some European countries.
The contradiction of federalism is that the higher the degree of self-rule, the lower the cost of secession, and self-rule without shared rule reduces the loyalties that sub-state entities will hold towards the centre. Too much shared rule at the centre on issues that are of little concern to sub-state interests can also paralyse central decision-making and undermine the legitimacy of the state. Nepal may face all these challenges as it implements federalism progressively. As a federation in the making, Nepal may also encounter problems in maintaining good governance, transparency and accountability. During the process, the interest of sharing resources and regionalism may also arise. The devolution of economic and fiscal power may become a bone of contention between the centre and the states and local governments.
There would be push and pull factors for exercising power at the federal and provincial levels where the centre may exert its influence and unilaterally revoke the autonomy of sub-state governments. The centre’s move to keep the chief district officer under its authority is a test case of power friction between the centre and the provinces.
A recent meeting of chief ministers unanimously expressed concern and displeasure over the delay in formulating legal instruments at the centre and preventing them from steering forward in a spirit of federalism. Some of the chief ministers have been meeting foreign ambassadors without the consent and approval of the federal government. It has been revealed that some chief ministers accepted generous support from international non-governmental organisations for petty projects which contravenes constitutional jurisdiction.
In the absence of resilient democratic political parties at the centre, and the existing ones being too rigid to reform according to changing political systems, chances of emerging regional parties holding prominence in governance are high. Weakening mainstream political parties and rising regional parties in national politics changes political dynamics, often leading to coalition governments at the centre and the provinces.
Regional parties growing along ethnic and cultural lines and holding influence and power over a period of time may may lead to demand for greater autonomy within the federation or pose a serious threat of separation. Therefore, the adoption of pluralism by the political parties in all its forms is the core value for federalism to succeed. The spirit of sharing, fairness and self-rule has to be honoured and practiced diligently and prudently. A new emerging federal democracy like Nepal also has to be aware of the recent awakening of identity politics, ethnicity and minorities besides the deprived.
Bartaula was the former under-secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs