Nepali Times
Constitution Supplement
Finding federalism

Nicole Topperwien has been working on federalism for more than 10 years, and has been closely involved with the debate on federalism in Nepal for more than two years now. She works as an expert on constitution-making and federalism with the special advisor for peace-building of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

Nepali Times: What is your assessment of the peace process and federalism in Nepal?
Nicole Topperwien:
The peace process and constitution-making are closely linked, and federalism is one of the big topics in constitution-making. When I first came to Nepal, I found people were mostly interested in what federalism was and whether it was possible here. The debate has changed. The country has already decided to become a federal republic, so the focus is now on how this can be realised and what it will mean for Nepal. I can see there is a certain degree of urgency to come to an agreement because of the approaching deadline for the constitution. The CA committees have had many meetings. In the coming weeks important decisions will have to be taken to move constitution-making forward.

There has not been an agreement on the basis of federalism. What do you think would be most appropriate for Nepal?
This question only Nepal can answer. When we look at experiences across the world, we see some countries base federalism more on geography, others use ethnicity as a basis and still others have a mixed system. In the end what is more important is that people throughout Nepal, whether they are in a minority or a majority, can be assured that they can live with the federal system that is chosen.

No ethnic group really dominates any region in Nepal. How can we demarcate boundaries?
The interim constitution envisions Nepal as a federal country. Federalism has been chosen as a means to eliminate marginalisation and foster development. Demarcating boundaries can be used to address such issues but it alone will not automatically improve the lives of marginalised people. That depends on a whole host of other issues as well, such as inter-ethnic relations, how federal units are organised or how problems are solved in different regions. We have to look at the range of possibilities, for instance whether certain ethnicities and marginalised groups have to be granted special rights to ensure equal opportunities.

What about the expenses of federalism for a poor country like Nepal?
We can argue that federalism incurs certain costs because you need administration at different levels. But Switzerland was a poor country when it introduced federalism. Switzerland owes its overall prosperity to many different factors, federalism amongst others. The central government still supports poorer cantons financially.
It is very difficult to answer the question on the costs of federalism. In certain cases, it is less expensive to deliver services and to have decision making done locally rather than have everything controlled by the centre. It might also prevent certain conflicts. It's only when we take all of these factors into consideration that we can determine whether a federal system is more expensive than a centrally run system.

There is no agreement among the parties on federal structure, forms of government and a number of other issues. Was it right for Nepal to opt for federalism?
It is never easy to write a constitution and to agree on a new system of governance. Difficult times during constitution making are fast overcome if the outcome is experienced as positive. The decisions can only be taken by Nepal because Nepal will have to live with the consequences of its decisions. On the positive side, federalism could help devolve more rights to regions and acknowledge different groups. There will also be new opportunities for new economic centres to emerge. In federal countries there are normally mechanisms at the centre that will incorporate the viewpoints of different regions in the national parliament. Such a mechanism can make government inclusive and help keep the country together.

What will be the consequences if the provinces fail?
First of all when federalism is introduced, the provinces normally aren't given full powers right away. Powers are gradually devolved and capacities are built in parallel. People are really eager to learn and build up capacity when they know they have to apply it, and I think this will be the case in Nepal. The process of implementation is important and has to be carefully prepared.

Federal units will not receive all powers. Some powers will remain with the centre and there is always cooperation with the centre. For this there have to be certain mechanisms for cooperation. The idea of federalism is that on certain issues federal units can really make their own decisions. On other issues, the centre decides or can give certain guidelines. If provinces are not capable of assuming certain responsibilities, then the centre can limit the risks and provide support to the provinces in these areas. Cooperation between federal units and the centre will be an essential part of establishing partnerships between those levels of state.

What is an autonomous region with the right to self-determination?
Some understand it as the right to leave the country, while others interpret it as meaning that the population of a territory can decide on certain issues, elect its own representatives or make its own policies. It really depends on how self-determination is defined. International law in most cases defines it as right to internal self-determination without right to secession.

Is there any risk of secession?
The hope of federalism is that you make it attractive for people to remain in the country they live in. On certain issues they can decide for themselves and on certain issues they cooperate with the centre. They are not completely ruled by the centre. There are no absolute guarantees against disintegration, but if the system chosen gives people room to roam, happiness and security and they feel they have a good life, why should they want to leave the country?

What is the situation of the cantons of Switzerland?
We don't use the term self-determination but we have a very strong notion that cantons should be able to determine their policies on their own. They can have a bit of their own identity. In this sense they have the right to self-determination. But the constitution does not say anything about the right to secede. A long time back, before federalism was introduced certain cantons wanted to leave the confederation. The centre intervened and mobilised the military. More recently we had one case in which part of a canton wanted to form a canton on its own. There were extensive debates and finally they agreed on a mechanism whereby every district and village could decide whether to be part of the new canton. We managed to find a democratic solution that took up the wishes of the people. For us, federalism combined with democracy worked as a conflict management tool.

Geographic view of federalism - FROM ISSUE #474 (30 OCT 2009 - 05 NOV 2009)
Multicultural federalism - FROM ISSUE #444 (27 MARCH 2009 - 02 APRIL 2009)
Let's rethink this - FROM ISSUE #433 (09 JAN 2009 - 15 JAN 2009)
Federalism isn't a zero-sum game - FROM ISSUE #438 (13 FEB 2009 - 19 FEB 2009)
Boundaries of federalism - FROM ISSUE #431 (26 DEC 2008 - 01 JAN 2009)
Cooperative federalism - FROM ISSUE #407 (04 JULY 2008 - 10 JULY 2008)
Ethinicty-based federalism? - FROM ISSUE #341 (23 MARCH 2007 - 29 MARCH 2007)
Federalism or death - FROM ISSUE #333 (26 JAN 2007 - 01 FEB 2007)

1. P.C.Joshi
I resently visited Switzerland and stayed 3 weeks there.I got the feeling that swiss federalism was evoled from base over many years and not imposed from top.I agree with Ms Nicole Topperwin when she says federalism combined with democracy worked as a conflict management tool.But the question is how to frame it envolving grass root people. In my opinion,frist of all election of 75 districts' governments should be held there should no problem to do this if all parties agree on this and after district' governments are formed, they should be asked to suggest which districts want to join together to form a province of their region.Once these suggetions are colleceted from all 75 districts it should be extensively discussed in the Constitution Assemly with the participaion of national as well as international persons having long experiance on federalism In this way only we can envolve people in the making of a federal contitution which will last for a long time and bring real peace to the people of Nepal.To my mind,this is the way to evolved federalism combined with 'grass root' democracy.I think Switgerland has lot to offer us on this subject.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)