22-28 August 2014 #721

Federalism for the sake of it

Federalism is a distraction from the other important aspects of state re-structuring and reform of political representation
David Seddon

Now that Nepal’s political parties have managed to agree that the title of the new Constitution should be, simply, ‘The Constitution of Nepal’ without further elaboration, they may also have gathered the courage and realism to  agree that federalism is the wrong response to rightful and legitimate concerns regarding the re-structuring of the state to ensure that democracy expresses the will of the majority of the people and safeguarding the rights of all minority groups.

A new, democratic Nepal should hold free and fair elections to a national assembly on a regular basis, probably adopting some form of proportional representation, perhaps combined with first-past-the-post, as in the case of the elections to the first CA. The slate of candidates should be identified in advance by the parties rather than selected after the event, and with candidates standing in only one seat each.  Constituencies in the Tarai could be re-structured to give stronger representation of Madhesis in the national assembly. It is not at all clear that there should be a second house, but if so this also should be largely elected rather than selected.

Federalism is a diversion and a distraction from the other important aspects of state re-structuring and reform of political representation. Firstly, it remains unclear what it entails as the parties have consistently failed to agree on the form, number of federal entities and the basis of their definition.

But it would be extremely expensive (buildings, personnel, salaries, allowances etc) and would add more layers of bureaucracy and self-interested politicians.

More importantly, it would divide Nepal into a number of inevitably competing political-economic-cultural entities, with diverse resources, populations and interests, each of which will seek to maximise their own interests against those of the others. This will weaken the capacity of the central government not only to maintain and defend the integrity of the nation and pursue sensible foreign policies, in trade, security, in the national interest, but also would significantly weaken its capacity to allocate resources so as to reduce the inequalities between regions.

If the definition of these new federal entities is to be on the basis of caste or ethnicity, then this risks creating or worsening social and cultural divisions, politicising them, and encouraging inter-caste and ethnic tensions if not outright conflict, both within the new federal entities, and across the country more generally.

This is a worst case scenario, but a very real possibility. The genuine concerns of minority groups cannot be met satisfactorily in this way. Janajatis and Madhesis may find themselves in conflict with other groups, but they will also discover and worsen the internal divisions and conflicts within these categories, as neither of them are homogeneous. Women and Dalits will have to fight for representation in other ways as there is no suggestion of federal entities based on gender or caste – or indeed religion. So Muslims, like many other marginalised and poorly represented social groups will have no voice in this proposed federal system.

The defence of the interests of minorities is of vital importance in a democracy, but these would be better served by a commitment to universal human rights and the right of each individual to be treated equally as a citizen, supported by the rule of law, effectively enforced, than by a divisive system in which some vested ‘minority’ interests are privileged above others. Proportional representation would allow smaller parties representing minority groups and interests to participate fully and have a chance of seats in the national assembly. As UCPN(M) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal has said, "It would be the most scientific system that could ensure representation of all the ethnic peoples and minorities." If devolution of power to local government is one of the objectives of federalism, then the districts (whether the present 75 or some other number of reconstructed districts) are the ideal scale for effective, accountable and transparent local government. VDC elections will enable people to have truly local representatives if the electoral system allows the views of minorities to be heard and to have a proper response.

It is more than a decade since Nepal had democratically elected local governments, and this is a priority instead of a futile debate over an irrelevant proposal for ‘some kind of federalism’. Federalism is not just a distraction, it will almost certainly promote social and political division.

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 with Arjun Karki.

Read also:

Reckless federification, Editorial

Federal fundamentalism, Bihari K Shrestha

Inclusion by any other name, Anurag Acharya

“A dangerous racism”

After a people’s war, Bihari K Shrestha

PR for PR, Trishna Rana

Madhesisation, Trib Tharu