In The News

Shaping a “New Nepal”

July 11, 2007

The people’s movement that dislodged King Gyanendra and led to the reinstatement of Parliament in April 2006, followed by the signing of a peace agreement between the government and Maoists, dramatically changed Nepal’s political landscape. As part of a fragile peace process in the wake of a protracted and brutal civil war, Nepal is now engaged in a fundamental reorganization of the state. Not only is there an opening to resolve the decade-long conflict, but also an opportunity to build a nation more responsive to all of its citizens. A key element in this process is the drafting of a new constitution, with elections to a Constituent Assembly now scheduled for November 22, 2007.

Remarkably diverse, Nepal ” with a population of 28.9 million people ” is home to more than 90 languages, over 40 different castes, and around 100 specific indigenous groups. Throughout its modern history, the country has been ruled by high caste Hindus, mainly men from Kathmandu. Their domination is evident in all spheres of society, including the civil service and politics. Because of the lack of internal democracy in political parties, an entrenched high-caste elite holds two-thirds of the central committees’ posts in the three largest parties. Even in the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), which has a reputation for being more inclusive than other parties, high-caste Hindu men dominate the senior ranks.

Now, historically marginalized groups like the madhesis (Indo-origin citizens from Nepal’s plains), dalits (lower caste citizens), janjatis (indigenous ethnic communities largely from the hills), women, and others are demanding a level playing field for the election and fair representation in the Constituent Assembly. They understand that the Constituent Assembly will establish the fundamental architecture of a new Nepal, from determining the fate of the vestigial monarchy to determining what type of federalism will be instituted.

In the southern plains, madhesis recently took to the streets in violent protests to demand greater representation for their region. Unfortunately, their example encouraged other disadvantaged groups to adopt similar tactics. While it is important that marginalized groups achieve better representation, there is a danger that the success of the madhesi movement”and before that the people’s movement and the Maoist insurrection”suggest that violence and mass action are the only political means through which political change can be achieved.

The Constituent Assembly Election Act proposed by the interim government attempts to define an election system that will provide equitable representation for traditionally marginalized groups. While this is a laudable objective, it is also very difficult to achieve. The elections system chosen by the interim government is called Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), which is a combination of two different election systems: single member constituency (usually called First-Past-The-Post or FPTP), and closed list proportional representation (PR). In Nepal, this means that 240 seats for Parliament will be selected through FPTP races in single-member constituencies, and a further 240 seats will be allocated to candidates on party lists so that the resulting Parliament will proportionally reflect the national popularity of each party. The Cabinet will appoint 17 additional seats.

Voters will cast two ballots, the first for a representative for their local constituency, and the second for a political party. In an attempt to provide fairer representation for women, dalits, and other traditionally marginalized groups, the drafters of the Act have required parties to represent these groups in the proportional segment of the election. As the law currently stands, however, parties will not be required to identify the marginalized candidates to be selected in the proportional segment of the election until after the ballot. This has left many groups worried that the traditional elites will manipulate the lists to maintain their hold on power.

Understanding how proportional representation is defined in Nepal is vital to understanding the current political debate. As an election system, proportional representation means the proportional representation of political parties in Parliament. However, as used by janjatis, madhesis, or women, it refers to the presence in Parliament of marginalized group members, castes, or women proportional to their percentage of the overall population. Therefore, based on this latter understanding, marginalized groups expect that in a proportional Parliament, their group will form a faction that can advocate in their interest. In fact, janjatis, madhesis, and women elected through PR will represent their party, but not their group, because party discipline will prevent them from forming cross-party alliances for specific issues. As the implications of this system become clearer to these marginalized groups, it is possible that they will withdraw their support for the current electoral system, preventing the Constituent Assembly election from going forward.

Several practical solutions have been suggested. First, madhesis are pushing to have constituencies in the plains more fairly delimited so they will not be gerrymandered in favor of traditional elites from the hills. This would encourage parties to put forward more madhesis in the First-Past-The-Post segment of the election. Similarly, janjati groups have argued that some of the smallest and most remote of the mountainous indigenous communities should be granted observer status in the Constituent Assembly so that even if they cannot vote they can watch the proceedings and prepare periodic reports of their concerns. There have also been suggestions that the Cabinet be granted additional appointed seats to the Assembly as a means to ensure that marginalized communities that do not fair well in the electoral process still have some representation in the body.

The Constituent Assembly is an extraordinary, once-in-history event. Measures such as these, taken along with an effort to require parties to identify their marginalized candidates before the election and not after, would help to reassure marginalized groups that a “New Nepal” will include all Nepalis.

Tim Meisburger is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Elections and Political Processes; Nick Langton is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative for Nepal.

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