Ethnic federalism is undoubtedly the most important and contentious issue in Nepal at the moment. Responsible for the dissolution of the constituent assembly and held by many as the system that will usher Nepal forward from centuries of exclusion and marginalization, ethnic federalism has become nothing short of a pervasive issue, though the jury is still out on whether such an arrangement would bring prosperity or disaster.
Since the downfall of the Constituent Assembly in May, little progress has been made towards a resolution on federalism; indeed Nepal’s politicians are currently stymied over whether to hold new CA elections or to revive the old legislative body. Regardless of their decision, any action on federalism has been once again significantly delayed. The delay itself is worrisome for Nepal’s transition from conflict, a process that has already dragged on for nearly six years, and is likely to see continued polarization of the political system. However, the delay provides an excellent opportunity to revisit the current federalist proposals and suggest a way forward.
Progress will depend on the realization and acceptance of two key truths: One, there will be no perfect solution to the federalist problem and two, the current plans for state division will remain divergent and unclear to the citizenry. Politicians must arrive at a consensus and then sell their plan to the people of Nepal.
There have been many models for the federations of Nepal, but there have been of late, three main proposals, each with some supporters and detractors:
One, the 11-state model: This model was proposed and agreed to in late May by the NC, UML and Maoist parties, largely in the hope of avoiding the governmental void that would occur without the promulgation of the constitution on May 27. The meetings and decision on this model were dominated by governmental and ethnic elites, putting the entire process on unstable grounds from the beginning. The model would allow for 11 states established on the basis of ethnicity as well as a governmental power sharing arrangement that would see a directly elected president and a prime minister elected by Parliament. This plan offered no consensus on which ethnicities would be represented by each of the 11 states or what the states would be named. The leaders once again kicked the proverbial can down the road, assigning these duties to future parliaments. As a result and for all of these reasons, this model was met with significant protest in the days and weeks following its unveiling.
Two, the 10-state model: Prior to the consensus achieved over the 11 state model, the Maoists tabled a plan that would divide the country into 10 states based upon ethnic identity and historical factors. The Maoists proposed this model shortly after a meeting of political parties at the Hattiban resort, at which the NC and UML stated explicitly that they would not support a system of division based on ethnic identity as it posed a problem for national unity. The Madhesi Morcha, the party representing the Madhesis of the Tarai region, ultimately favored the 10-state model. As such, we might interpret this proposal as a political ploy by the Maoists to gain favor among the Madhesis, particularly as it came so soon after the Hattiban meeting.
Three, the six to eight-state model: One of the earliest proposals put forth by the Nepali Congress was a plan to create six to eight states that would ensure rights to self determination and priority rights that would be incorporated in the new constitution. The proposal steered clear of establishing any concrete boundaries or naming the states, essentially passing that responsibility on to future legislators. The one steadfast statement from the Nepali Congress and eventually the UML was their refusal to consider an ethnicity-based federalism model, instead favoring a restructuring of governing power.
There are two distinct problems with all of these models. First, given the polarized nature of Nepal’s political system, any proposal that comes from within the main political establishment is sure to encounter serious resistance.
Whether grievance legitimately rests with some element of the proposal or is simply due to fear that the acceptance of one party’s plan will give them a political edge, it is unlikely that the parties will come to a consensus over any of the above plans. Secondly, in a country of more than 100 ethnic groups, a governmental system that decentralizes power based on ethnicity without providing an equitable path to power for all ethnic groups is without question problematic. To be fair, much of the finer details on power sharing and naming of states have been left for later in all of these models. However, politicians run the risk of public protest and perhaps violence if ethnic groups are not reassured and brought into the process.
There will be no going back on federalism. The idea has been promoted and promised as a solution to Nepal’s problems and for those that have faced decades of marginalization, it is hard to forget the idea. Nepal’s government must now agree on a plan that addresses a majority of concerns while simultaneously achieving buy-in from the citizenry. To move forward successfully, politicians should seek to achieve the following. One, agree to hold immediate talks on the Constituent Assembly. The issue of reviving the old body or going for fresh elections must be resolved with haste.
Two, establish a plan for ethnic federalism that addresses the concerns of the major parties. The time for ideological purity has passed and successful governing will require compromise. In developing a plan, politicians could achieve further buy-in by enlisting a third party nonpartisan individual or group to develop a plan for federating the country. This would decrease the role of party politics and make the plan more palatable to citizens that distrust the political system.
Three, invest in a roll out for federalism that will educate the general public on the plan while simultaneously addressing their concerns. Nepal’s citizens must be reassured that their interests will not be marginalized in a system that claims to address marginalization. Politicians would also be advised to create an advisory panel with representatives from all ethnic groups to address concerns of the ethnic model.
The current challenge is making federalism work in the Nepali context both politically and practically. These steps propose a way forward from the current political quagmire and will provide a broad base of acceptance and buy-in, from which more timely and pressing issues of development and justice can be addressed.
The author is a development professional and researcher based in the United States. He works actively on transitional justice issues in Nepal.