Nepal’s peace process has lasted almost as long as the 10-year conflict that preceded it, and most people have become deeply disillusioned with politicians’ fruitless and often cynical manoeuvring.
April’s earthquake has now forced them into a deal on the new constitution, signed on June 8, which finally promises to draw a line under the process.
It is well known, of course, that promises are not always kept. Nevertheless, this deal is a source of cautious optimism. With the country now facing a long term humanitarian crisis, it cannot afford to be in a permanent political stalemate.
Yet it is indicative of how bad the country’s politics truly are that many commentators – looking for a sliver of hope – are welcoming a pact that essentially offers more of the same. On social media, a common public response is scepticism and distrust.
The point of it all
When the end of the Maoist insurgency was being negotiated, all parties accepted that future conflicts could be prevented by addressing the social inequities and chronic bad governance which had helped to incubate the war in the first place.
This would be done through a new constitution, drafted by an elected constituent assembly. In the process, the Maoists would be “mainstreamed” into democratic politics.
In the words of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the parties were committed to “forward-looking restructuring of the state by resolving the prevailing problems related to class, ethnicity, regional and gender differences”, which would ensure “democracy, peace, prosperity, forward-looking economic and social transformation as well as independence, integrity, sovereignty and the dignity of the country”.
When the end of the Maoist insurgency was being negotiated, all parties accepted that future conflicts could be prevented by addressing the social inequities and chronic bad governance…
There were any number of ways in which such goals could have been pursued. Among other things there was cross party commitment to land reform and the “democratisation” of the army. In practise, especially after uprisings in the southern plains in 2007 and 2008, the debate centred upon federating the country into provinces that would partly reflect the country’s ethnic diversity, which – it was claimed – would give greater access to power to sizable yet marginalised social groups.
To many in the older political mainstream, this agenda was threatening and, they argued, socially divisive. Their priorities were mostly limited to “mainstreaming” the Maoists – perhaps the only element of the peace process which has unequivocally been achieved.
While the newer political forces won the first constituent assembly election in 2008, they were not able to gain the older parties’ support for a new federal model. The first assembly expired without completing the charter, and a second election in 2013 gave the “establishment” parties the upper hand.
Yet federalism remained the sticking point. Although the “pro-federal forces” (led by the Maoists) were greatly weakened, a deal which they opposed had little chance of success so the stalemate continued.
The new deal
Many features of the new constitution have become clearer with time, and are confirmed by this week’s agreement. For example, Nepal will retain its “Westminster style” parliamentary system.
But on the matter of federalism, the parties have once again postponed the most difficult issues. They have agreed that there will be eight provinces – a seemingly arbitrary number – but their boundaries will be decided – supposedly within six months – by an expert commission.
Previous commissions and committees given this task have failed to find a formula acceptable to all. When, or if, the question is ever settled it must be endorsed by the top leaders. This agreement allows the parties to get on with more pressing political business in the aftermath of the earthquake by deferring the issue again.
More generally, the agreement essentially confirms the existing political arrangements with limited adjustments. The current political cycle therefore repeats the pattern of the 1950s and 1990s, when movements for national reform also delivered less change than initially seemed likely.
For example, in an exhibition of patriarchal conservatism, the leaders have refused to satisfy demands that Nepali women have fully equal citizenship rights. The ability of the Nepali establishment to resist major shocks, both political and seismic, is impressive. The new deal ends up looking rather like the existing one.
Following their poor response to the earthquake, political leaders were under pressure to demonstrate their relevance and show leadership. Crucially, their individual interests also converged in opening the way to a new all-party government, furthering their personal ambitions and giving them access to state power and resources during the coming reconstruction efforts.
After one and a half years in power – which is the Nepali average in recent decades – the existing government was ripe for change. The continual replacement of governments sustains the parties’ political machines. It is a sad, though unsurprising, irony that just as the disaster has exposed the weakness of the state it has strengthened long-standing political practices.
Getting the constitution finished is undoubtedly in the country’s interest. This deal could be a step towards a viable outcome, especially if the leaders are willing to continue to build upon their new willingness to compromise. The need is to keep moving forward, in appearance and reality.
It is especially important that they reach out and gain the trust of the leaders of socially marginalised groups, who immediately rejected the agreement. These parties are currently politically weaker than they were a few years ago, but they seek to represent large constituencies whose consent is necessary if the new constitution is to have enduring legitimacy.
More broadly, both for the country’s political future and for its urgent humanitarian needs, the veteran leaders must rise above the modes of behaviour which have characterised their governing pasts. Of that, unfortunately, there is little evidence so far.
Thomas Bell has reported on Nepal for over a decade. His new book of history and reportage is ‘Kathmandu’.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.