Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) just settled one of the remaining big issues for the new constitution. There will be a directly elected President and a parliament-elected Prime Minister. Unresolved issues include the most contentious of all, how the states should be structured. The Maoist party, whose vice-chairman Baburam Bhatterai is currently Prime Minister, wants eleven federal states. The other big parties, the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, want eight. The alliance of small Madhesi parties wants a single province for the Madhesis who make up around half of Nepal’s total population.
The fundamental issue is whether states should be based primarily on language/ethnicity, economics or geography.
The CA was elected on 10 April 2008 to establish a new constitution within two years. Earlier election dates in June and November of 2007 had been missed. When the CA failed to meet its April 2010 deadline they granted themselves another year. With little progress made by then, they granted themselves a further year. When they missed that deadline, too, they were given a hard one of May 27.
The Maoists had gotten a third of the seats in the CA in the 2008 election by promising representation to Nepal’s ethnic minorities. Four years later, as the May 27 deadline draws near there are rallies, protests and strikes all across the country. Hard deadlines usually don’t mean much in Nepal but the people are angry at long last. There’s no electricity 14 hours a day, food and fuel prices are rising fast, unemployment is high and soaring. Everything is hard and getting worse for almost everyone except the politicians. They are getting richer and, Nepalis say, doing nothing. There could be mass violence if the CA is still deadlocked on May 27.
The pressure is high enough it seems likely the CA can pass a constitution by May 27 with everything resolved except state structure. They might defer that to a new commission, which would likely be acceptable to UN observers following the process and India, which would have to intervene if Nepal became overtly ungovernable.
Baburam Bhatterai is the only politician who commands any respect from Nepalis. He surprised almost everyone by resolving the equally long-standing issue of reintegrating the Maoist “soldiers” into society and he may succeed in getting a compromise of this kind accepted.