8-14 December 2017 #887

Momentous moment

Ryan Chang

It has become an accepted truism that Nepal lost two decades to a turbulent transition. Actually, this prolonged political transition has lasted since the overthrow of the Rana oligarchy in 1950.

What we have had for the past 67 years is trial-and-error politics: experimenting with a hybrid feudocracy, dabbling in parliamentary democracy, enduring a partyless absolute monarchy for 30 years, suffering a ruinous war, a monarchy-led military coup, and riding a roller coaster of coalition politics.

This week marks a milestone in Nepal’s political history. It is not just the end of the past ten years of war and 11 years of waffling, but an interregnum that has lasted nearly seven decades.

Time and again in that period, politicians, plutocrats and kings have taken Nepal to the brink. It was only the sacrifices of the people, their capacity to overcome oppression, their innate belief in an open society, that repeatedly pulled us back from the edge. Citizens stood up to resist as Nepal’s rulers tried their best to wreck the country.

It is when we look at Nepali history from the current historic vantage point that we will see just how momentous this moment is. However flawed, we now have a people’s constitution that has laid down the law of the land with its core values of inclusive democracy, pluralism and the rule of law. Aside from those inalienable principles, it is a document that can be mended as we go along.

Even those who were against the constitution, rose up violently against it, warned of sabotaging local and provincial elections and even threatened to secede are now taking part – albeit with a little prodding from their mentors. This signals that the constitution and these elections have not deliberately left anyone out, except a trigger-happy radical fringe of the Maoists.

India’s five month post-earthquake blockade of Nepal in support of the stir led by Madhes-based parties in 2015 nearly tore the country’s ethnic fabric apart by polarising hills and plains. It is true that extremism in Kathmandu’s centre of power was reluctant to devolve and thought it could bulldoze through a new constitution, as it had always done. But it was also clear that the strings of the Tarai movement were being pulled from elsewhere.

Geopolitical entanglement in constitution formation soon pushed Nepal northwards, making New Delhi back-pedal in the past year to ‘allow’ elections to go ahead. The lesson from all this is that if there hadn’t been so much cross-border micro-management of our politics, perhaps things would have been sorted out much earlier.

Despite the cynicism and negativity that preceded the three tiers of elections this year, we have to grudgingly admit that the last 11 years have not been completely wasted. Yes, the transition lasted longer than it need have, but the country went from war to peace, from a theocratic monarchy to a secular republic, from a centralised unitary state to one where powers are to be devolved to elected local governments.

Despite the violent legacy of the war, this dramatic transformation of state structure took place relatively bloodlessly. In an age where ethnic strife and geopolitical proxy wars are tearing countries apart, Nepal must be credited for handling its political evolution in a civilised manner.

The main challenge now is to fix the broken bits in the constitution, sort out knotty issues like provincial names, boundaries, their rights and responsibilities. All this so that we can finally take that big leap we have been waiting 70 years to take: ensure that decentralised and accountable decision-making by elected officials will lead to sustained development, growth with job creation, and improvements in the affordability and accessibility of schooling and medical care.

It is not a far-fetched dream. It is realistic and only needs an extrapolation of the strides Nepal has taken in upgrading its Human Development Index in the past 20 years. This progress in slashing maternal mortality, doubling female literacy and halving the poverty rate have happened despite a war and paralysed politics. Image how much further we would have been if governance was more efficient and transparent.

The results of these elections will be clear by next week, the new parliament will sit in mid-January, and the biggest party will have up to 40 days to form a government.

Although there is great hope that the elections represent a milestone in Nepal's political history, as our report shows, the fact that most of the candidates are unreformed oldies doesn't offer much hope.

Federalism should have been the perfect opportunity to finally devolve Kathmandu's powers but the low priority given to provincial candidates shows it may end up being just a rubber stamp body. Indeed, party hierarchies have dumped weaker candidates to their lineups for provincial assemblies.

Whichever party gets to lead the country at least for the next three years, and whoever is the principle opposition, let them not squander this chance. There is a lot of catching up to do.

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