30 Dec 2016 - 5 Jan 2017 #839

A happier New Year

2015 was a year of disasters. 2016 was a year of lost opportunities. What will 2017 bring?

Diwakar Chettri

On social networking sites, many people around the world are saying ‘good riddance’ to 2016 but there isn’t much optimism about 2017 either. Even as the US President Elect fills his cabinet with climate-deniers and oil tycoons, the world has seen the warmest year in history with record depletion of Arctic Ice. 

Here in Nepal, we breathed a sigh of relief to say goodbye to 2015 — the year of geotectonic and geopolitical earthquakes. We thought the earthquake was bad until the blockade hit. We waited in vain for the whole of 2016 for the politics to stabilise, but despite regime change we seem no closer to a resolution to the constitutional crisis caused by the deadlock over the Second Amendment. 

2017 is going to be even critical because unless this stalemate is solved and we are able to hold local, provincial and parliamentary elections by 21 January 2018, the political vacuum will have unprecedented and unpredictable consequences for Nepal.

Parliament has now been deadlocked for more than three weeks as the opposition UML invokes Article 274 of the Constitution to step up pressure for a rollback of the proposed amendment. A substantive portion in that amendment would chop off the hill districts of Province 5 and graft them into Province 4. To be sure, there is vocal opposition to the move even among leaders belonging to the Nepali Congress and Maoist Centre in the ruling coalition, and the mid-western hills and plains have been reeling under long-running protests. 

Kunda Dixit

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and his establishment colleagues are seen to be under pressure from outside (read: India) to push through the amendment. In response, the UML has been waving the nationalist flag by describing Province 5 as a dress rehearsal for the real goal: to incise the three eastern-most districts of Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari as well as Kailali and Kanchanpur in the far-west so that the two proposed Madhes provinces encompass all the Tarai districts.   The Madhesi parties have portrayed this as a last-ditch constitutional attempt to resolve the issue of federal autonomy for the plains. They argue that they have climbed down from their original demand of a single Madhes state for a two-province model, but insist that all the plains districts should be included in those two states.

This is an electoral issue of vote banks and politics, which is what makes it so complicated. There is no way Nepali Congress and Maoist leaders will give up Kailali and Kanchanpur, and the UML sees Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari as its heartland. Even though all five districts are in the plains, they have seen a vast influx of hill settlers in the past 50 years due to state-sponsored transmigration. 

With passions running so high, and politics getting mixed up with ethnicity, territoriality and boundary disputes, it may be prudent to shelve any rejigging of federal provinces for now. Senior political leaders from across the political spectrum, some of them architects of constitution framing since 2006, have even been thinking the previously unthinkable: put federalism itself in the back burner for now.

Seeing that the amendment bill will face a parliamentary deadlock, some in the three parties are proposing that elections be held first. The knotty question is whether those elections should be held under the current political structure or the new federal one. As that debate delays a decision, time is running out for the Election Commission to ready for the mammoth task of holding three elections in one year. 

From the outside it does look like the three main parties are, in the traditional style of Nepali politics, just buying time and letting things sort themselves out. The tragedy is that on elections, on future boundaries of provinces, on proposals for changing electrical constituencies and on citizenship none of the parties and their leaders are thinking beyond their vote banks. Day-to-day politics and long-term national interest do not mix.

Besides elections, the ruling coalition and some Madhesi parties are pushing for the amendment, while the UML is holding the impeachment of CIAA Chief Lokman Singh Karki as another demand on which it wants a package agreement.

Allowing that stalemate to prolong any further will make elections uncertain and threaten a Constitution that was finally drafted by a democratically-elected Constitution Assembly after seven decades.  

2015 was a year of disasters. 2016 was a year of lost opportunities. We will have to see what  2017 will bring.

Read also:

Heads we lose, tails we lose, Kunda Dixit

Let’s talk, Om Astha Rai

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