29 Aug - 5 Sept 2014 #722

Instead of federalism

It is not too late to reconsider the positive alternatives to federalism
David Seddon
Last week I argued against federalism (‘Federalism for the sake of it’, #721) suggesting that it was a bad response to legitimate concerns (particularly among those who feel that the status quo gives too much power to what is already a dominant group in the political system) to ensure that the new Nepal had a system of democracy that accepted the will of the majority while defending and indeed promoting the interests of minority groups.

I am a democrat, and a socialist, and recognise those feelings of marginalisation and lack of real ‘voice’ among disadvantaged groups. The problem with federalism is that it will not give voice, let alone power, to the truly disadvantaged and marginalised, but only to those who claim to speak in their name and who are among the relatively better off, better educated and least disadvantaged and marginalised of the groups whom they claim to represent.

In the name of caste and ethnic marginalisation, the rich and powerful will claim the right to a state of ‘their’ own. There will be no voice, let alone power, for women, dalits, religious minorities, the disabled and other social groups, nor even for the poor and disadvantaged among the Janjati and the Madhesis, in the new federal states -- just more relatively well-off men from privileged backgrounds gaining more power and wealth from their new positions.

An alternative might be to consider in more detail the proposal, which it seems Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the UCPN(M) now favours, for proportional representation. This could be the sole system of political representation, offering an alternative to the first-past-the-post system, or else it could be combined with first-past-the-post, as it was in the elections to the singularly broad and representative first Constituent Assembly.

This would favour smaller parties and help reduce the dismal dominance of the three main parties, whose leaders at present seem to feel they can ignore the other parties, dissent from public opinion, and make policy virtually on their own terms.

Another option is to look to the districts (elected DDCs) to provide the basis for an elected second house, if such is considered of value. If each District Council (whose members would be themselves democratically elected to the DDC) elected a representative to a national House of Representatives, they might – or might not (that would be their prerogative as representatives rather than mandated delegates) – decide to form regional blocs to argue the case for their region.

They may feel impelled to do this according to whether they come from the hills or from the Tarai, whether they come from the Far-West, the Mid-West or the East, or according to any other of a number of possible cross-cutting alliances and associations. They may form blocs or alliances according to the predominant caste or ethnic group in their district, but they may unite on entirely different bases altogether. This, however, would give an additional democratic set of voices, from the local DDCs to add to the voices in the National Assembly.

If it is sincerely felt that Nepal needs a new mechanism to recognise the distinctive characteristics of particular regions, there are already five so-called ‘development regions', on the basis of which comparisons are often made: the Far-West, Mid-West, the West, the Centre, and the East. In the 1970s and 1980s these were regarded as the basis for development, ideally with major roads linking the mountains, hills and Tarai in each and highways linking them all from west to east.

They could again be recognised as a valid framework, not for federalisation but for a coherent unified national effort to reduce the inequalities between them. They could also be linked in a renewed and comprehensive effort to promote both development and national unity, while at the same time, separately recognising the diversity of Nepal’s economy and society. The very urgent need to promote positive or affirmative action to improve the situation of people living in disadvantaged regions, as well as those disadvantaged by class, gender, caste or ethnicity, religion or other cultural features, age and/or disability could also be addressed.

There are so many alternatives to consider as ways to transform the status quo and give those who are disadvantaged and marginalised a voice and real power. Why waste time on ‘federalism’, whose real advantages have never been explained by their advocates and which has become a ‘sacred cow’ -- if the use of this term is not too offensive  --  in public discourse, simply because it was ‘adopted’ with virtually no prior or subsequent discussion at the first Constituent Assembly in 2008.

It is not too late to reconsider the positive alternatives to federalism.

David Seddon is author of Nepal in Crisis: Growth and Stagnation in the Periphery and The Struggle for Basic Needs in Nepal, Nepal - A State of Poverty, and co-author of The People’s War.

Read also:

Federalism for the sake of it, David Seddon

Reckless federification, Editorial

Federal fundamentalism, Bihari K Shrestha

PR for PR, Trishna Rana

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