The Nepali people have always shown that they are wiser and have more common sense than those who want to rule over them
It was inevitable that this month’s election was going to be a referendum on federalism. After sifting through the manifestos of the main parties in the fray, it is clear that the only issue that really divides them now is the question of how many federal provinces Nepal should be carved into and on what basis.
There is also disagreement about state structure: whether we should have a prime minister elected by parliament, or a president directly elected by the people. But public opinion polls show the people are fed up with the uncertainty of a parliamentary system and favour directly elected leaders who would be more accountable to them.
One could argue that the real divide is between those who want polls and the 30 or so parties led by the CPN-M who don’t. But it now looks pretty certain that the election juggernaut is unstoppable. An acrimonious difference has erupted within the rump Maoists between the main leadership, which is still looking for an accommodation and the group of hotheads led by Netra Bikram Chand, that wants to go back to war.
The fact that a faction of a party which was engaged in an armed struggle against the state is actively involved in sabotaging polls has implications not just for the quality of the voting, but also for the Constituent Assembly being able to come up with a workable draft.
Leaving that aside, Nepalis head to the polls with a
broad choice between parties and candidates who support federal units named after a single ethnic entity and those who back federal units with multiple-identities or along topographical lines. The UCPN (M), the MJFN, and the Federal Socialist Party composed of Janajati leaders who defected from the UML are for ethnicity-based federalism and have made this their main electoral plank. The UCPN (M), for instance, wants 11 provinces named Limbuwan, Kirat, Tamsaling, Newa, Tamuwan, Magarat, Tharuwan, Kochila, two provinces in the trans-Karnali along geographical lines and even one mysterious ‘nonterritorial’ province for the smaller indigenous groups. It is clear that the UCPN (M) is trying to be everything to everyone and this is just an election stunt. It is not really serious about self-governance for the provinces, whatever they are named.
The FSP led by Ashok Rai wants even more, as many as 14, ethnicity-based provinces that include autonomous regions for Sherpas, Mithila, and Jadan in northwestern Nepal. The MJF-N’s formula is identical to the UCPN (M) for ethnic autonomy and self-determination, but the party has stuck to its slogan of One Madhes.
On the other hand, the Nepali Congress, UML, TMLP, and other smaller parties feel having more than seven provinces would be unviable and say those provinces should not be named after single ethnicities. The RPP-N and RPP-D agree and also want provinces to be demarcated, taking into account economic viability, infrastructure development including hydropower, history, and geography. They want the provinces to have geographical names. At the fringe of this formation is the Jana Morcha of Chitra Bahadur KC who is garnering considerable support for being vocally against federalism itself. From all this, it is clear that the result of this election will be keenly watched to gauge public support for ethnicitybased federalism. There are serious misgivings among Nepal’s neighbours as well as donor groups that previously supported autonomy for the backward classes. What Nepal really needs is genuine decentralisation and self-governance that also gives the marginalised a voice. You can call it what you want.
Nationwide public opinion surveys carried out over the past four years by Himalmedia (publisher of the Nepali Times) have shown that three-fourths of respondents have consistently said ethnicity-based federalism is a bad idea. Disaggregated data even show that 78 per cent of Madhesi caste groups and 58 per cent of Madhesi ethnic groups were against ethnic federalism. The proportion of respondents from the Newar community who think ethnicity-based federalism is wrong is over 80 per cent.
The Nepali people have always shown that they are wiser and have more common sense than those who want to rule over them and this election (if it is free and independent) once more will be proof of that.