Nepali Times


The week after Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai spelt out his group's demand to scrap the 1990 Constitution, everyone from the left to the right wants to tinker with the ten-year-old document. Even the main opposition Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) couldn't resist it, and the central committee came up with a number of reasons why ten years of democracy have failed to deliver. The conclusion reached by the UML is: it is not inept politicians, not poor leadership, not bad governance, not even corruption; democracy has failed because we have a bad constitution.

But do we? More and more, it looks like the entire debate on the left of the political spectrum has been hijacked by the Maoists' violent campaign to overthrow the constitutional monarchy. The moderate left needs a cause, and it has seized upon the constitution and proposed amendments to it, mainly in the provisions for elections.

The UML's two main proposals are:

. Scrap delineation of electoral constituencies based on census counts, because more populous districts get more MPs

. Declare an all-party national government to oversee parliamentary elections.

The UML wants to present a bill in parliament to push the amendments, but that would need the support of the ruling Nepali Congress, which so far hasn't shown any enthusiasm for the proposed changes. NC leaders say the constitution is fine as it is, and the UML just wants to have a ball to run with ahead of next year's elections to local bodies. (Other UML ideas for change include constitutional guarantees for the creation of decentralised local governments, new provisions that would finally bring 'real' land reforms, and the creation of a secular state.)

UML general secretary, Madhav Kumar Nepal, was part of the team that put together the 1990 Constitution, and he feels a need for amendment because the population of developed regions in the country has grown faster and will consequently have more MPs, while traditional UML strongholds in the hill districts continue to face out-migration and hence fewer representatives. "Only a moratorium on changing constituency boundaries every 10 years [based on census figures] would ensure fair representation of the un-developed areas," he said.

Nepal is also adamant that any future parliamentary elections will not be free and fair unless it is overseen by a caretaker national government. He says such national governments could be formed by parliamentary parties proportionate to their representation, and the prime minister could be the incumbent. Nepal even sees a role for such a national government in finding a political solution to the Maoist problem.

Under existing parliamentary arithmetic, only a UML-Congress combine can muster the two-third majority strength to change the constitution. But given that Congress thinks the UML's first proposal is gerrymandering, and the second violates the fundamental tenets of parliamentary democracy, it is difficult to see how such a bill can be passed. "They've raised a non-issue, an irrelevant debate when the constitution has not been fully tested," says Ganesh Raj Sharma, a constitutional lawyer. "It is an escapist attempt to flee from present realities and problems."

The UML needs to keep the fires of the constitutional debate going if only to steal the limelight from radicals to its left and right. But UML member of parliament Subhas Nemwang says the proposal is not new and is fully justified. "No one seems to be willing to even listen. We've been talking about changes for a long time, and it's now in public debate because our central committee has taken it up." He says the 1990 Constitution was a compromise made when democracy had just been restored, and it is now time to "do what was left undone".

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)