Political uncertainty puts Nepal’s federal process on a bumpy roadConfusion created by KP Sharma Oli in Kathmandu has percolated into the provinces and it endangers implementation of federalism, experts say.
A day after losing the chief minister’s chair in Gandaki, Prithvi Subba Gurung, a CPN-UML politician and close aide to party chair and Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, said on Sunday that federalism was under attack from all around.
Talking to media persons, Gurung also said it was unfortunate that political shenanigans from the centre [Kathmandu] have percolated into provinces.
Gurung’s assessment appears to be right, but it came a bit too late—after he lost his office to Nepali Congress’ Krishna Chandra Nepali after a highly charged political drama in Gandaki on Saturday.
Gurung, however, admitted that some politicians’ self-centric attitude led to the fall of his government.
Saturday’s government change in Gandaki, installing a Congress leader as chief minister, may come as a delight for some, as it also marks a setback for Oli. But observers say it carries a deep meaning when it comes to Nepal’s federal system.
It has been six years since the country adopted a new constitution that guaranteed Nepal as a federal, democratic republic. The 2017 elections installed three tiers of government—one federal government, seven provincial governments and 753 local governments.
But more than three years since, politicians in Kathmandu, especially those in power, still seem to be considering federalism as a top-down approach, ignoring what is clearly laid out in the constitution. And those leading provincial governments, except in Province 2, have resigned themselves before their masters in Kathmandu.
Province 2 is the only government to challenge the federal government against the latter’s move to centralise power. It moved the Supreme Court countering the centre on some occasions.
However, when it comes to its own performance, Province 2 also has failed on different fronts. It is the only province which has yet to decide its provincial headquarters and the name. Province 1 too is yet to have a name, but it has finalised its headquarters.
Analysts say though Nepal adopted a new constitution and federal set-up, politicians who played a crucial role in achieving those failed to institutionalise them. At present, both the constitution and federalism are facing a grave danger, according to them.
Som Lal Subedi, a former chief secretary who holds a PhD in fiscal decentralisation, says provincial governments failed to demonstrate their efficiency, just as the federal government continued to put a tight leash on them.
“I see problems on both sides,” Subedi told the Post.
The constitution has explicitly defined the relations between the various levels of government.
Articles 232 (1) states that the relations between the federation, provinces and local governments shall be based on the principles of cooperation, co-existence and coordination.
But most of the provinces ever since they came into existence appear to have functioned in such a way that they were as though the administrative units of Kathmandu, just like what Oli once said.
When provincial governments were formed, six out of seven were led by the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), a party that was formed after the merger between the UML and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre).
But the infighting in the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and its successive split—again into the UML and the Maoist Centre—had an impact on provincial governments.
Oli’s UML had governments in four provinces and the Maoist Centre in two, while Province 2 has had a non-communist government since 2018.
The chief ministers of the provinces controlled by the UML functioned more as Oli’s aides than as leaders elected to serve the people.
Even before the Nepal Communist Party (NCP)’s split, only Province 2 had once in a while challenged the federal government on a couple of occasions for interference.
Khim Lal Devkota, an expert on federal affairs who holds a PhD in Development Economics, says one of the reasons federalism has failed to become effective in Nepal is chief ministers’ failure.
Nepal’s constitution has explicitly specified a range of functions for the federal and provincial governments to be executive solely or jointly.
“They could never raise their voice to demand that they be allowed to function independently, as per the powers vested in them by the constitution,” said Devkota.
Nepal’s initial steps towards federalism were constrained by the federal government’s reluctance to introduce some key umbrella laws. Continuation of the provision of chief district officers continues to remain a contested issue in the federal system.
But experts say the major problem lies in Oli as well as those who lead the provinces for the faltering of federalism in Nepal.
It had come as disrespect to the constitution when at least two provinces selected their names and capitals at the direct orders from the political leadership in Kathmandu.
Now the political uncertainty unleashed by Oli, who faces criticism for his lack of commitment to federalism, has put the constitution as well as federal process in danger, experts say. According to them, implementation of the constitution and federalism goes hand in hand and the federal system is taking a beating because Oli has been assaulting the charter.
Oli has dissolved the House of Representatives and his position is becoming untenable, with the opposition alliance piling pressure on him. The House dissolution is being examined by the court for its constitutionality.
While provinces should have been functioning well on their own, Oli’s House dissolution has created ripple effects.
Shankar Pokhrel and Sherdhan Rai, chief ministers of Lumbini and Province 1, who are Oli’s close confidants, are busier in saving their master’s politics rather than governing the provinces they lead.
Gurung, who has so far stood by Oli, said on Sunday that provincial governments haven’t been able to perform to the levels of expectation because they could not work independently. He did not elaborate.
It’s not that Nepal does not have institutions to facilitate the federal process.
The Inter-provincial Council, National Natural Resource and Fiscal Commission, and the Province-Local Government Council are some of the political institutions that are in place so as to strengthen the intergovernmental relationship and federalism in Nepal. But they have been by and large rendered useless.
Experts say just a change in the system does not make any significant difference unless those elected to implement it internalise why the new system is adopted and what is its end goal.
“We only changed the system; we didn’t change our behaviour,” said Subedi, the former chief secretary with expertise on federal matters. “We cannot expect results without changing our mindset and behaviour.”