The Time in Between: On Nepal’s Constitutional Transition


“We’re going to go to the central grounds, and we’re going to get in front of the crowds and yell our speeches, and we’re going to go like this!” Krishna Bahadur Karki was getting visibly excited as he jabbed his clenched fist repeatedly into the air. Next to him was a well-thumbed Nepali translation of Marx’s Das Kapital. He was sitting at the back of his fruit shop, beside the plastic jars of lollipops and gum. “We’re going to make the country heaven.”

Krishna is the vice president of the United People’s Front, an old, disbanded political party that revived itself last year. It was created, he said, as a response to the brokenness of Nepal’s political system – both the leaders and the major parties have made a mockery of the country’s revolution and democracy. Krishna is an affable man whose white hair is mottled with black dye. He comes from Jhapa, a village in southeastern Nepal, and his rural roots show in the way he approaches politics: “We’re trying to build the party around what the villagers want. We’re going around and speaking with them, because still their voices have been left out of politics,” he said as he weighed a watermelon for a customer.

Nepal’s transition from an autocratic government to a democratic one has not exactly been easy. In 2013, five years after the monarchy was abolished and the country was declared a republic, the government still has no constitution. No elected government has ever completed a full term. And last year, the country drifted into uncharted waters: At midnight on May 27, 2012, the Constituent Assembly, the parliamentary body that was created in 2008 and tasked with writing a constitution, was dissolved by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it had failed in four years to complete its original purpose. The interim constitution made no provisions for holding fresh elections, nor for replacing the government. The country has made do this past year with ad-hoc, provisional governments whose main purpose is to hold and oversee elections that will establish a new Constituent Assembly so that effort towards writing a constitution can begin again. The situation has left Nepal in an interesting predicament; the revolution has come, now it’s about figuring out what do to with it.

A couple of days later, Krishna and I sat in the room behind his fruit shop, where he lives with his son and daughter. Strewn around him were notes that he was preparing for an upcoming party meeting. He looked at them intermittently as he spoke with me. “We created our party after the CA dissolved last year. We call ourselves ‘modern communists’ – meaning, we’re not the Maoists, and we’re not the Marxist-Leninists. The CA was so dysfunctional, all it was doing was fighting. We don’t want to be associated with any of that.”

The dysfunctionality of the last Constituent Assembly is a pet topic in any political conversation these days. Earlier in 2013, a satirical song called ‘Neta Ji’ by a local band called Joint family International went viral on Youtube and social media. Its lyrics lampooned the political leaders involved in the Constituent Assembly, describing them as inept and unproductive, absurd egotists who left the country to flounder in an era of uncertainty and political stagnation. The song’s music video features a cartoonish image of a politician spray-painted onto the side of a wall, at which the “real people” – those not involved in the world of politics – throw eggs and tomatoes.

These frustrations surrounding the CA are not entirely unfounded. A study conducted after the dissolution found that over the course of its four years, only two thirds of the assembly was in regular attendance. Those who attended were usually representatives of smaller political parties who were keen on getting their issues integrated into the constitution. While representation of historically marginalized groups such as women, Dalits, indigenous ethnicities, and youth was much higher in the Constituent Assembly than in any other political body in the past, the institution was still plagued by dictatorial leaders, backroom deals, patronage, and corruption. Commonly, the four largest parties – the Nepali Congress, United Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, and a new coalition of parties representing the southern plains known as the Madesh – circumvented the assembly entirely and would conduct informal meetings with each other to settle contentious issues, according to various reports by research institutions such as the International Crisis Group and Martin Chautari.

Deepti Khakurel, a program officer for IDEA, an international inter-governmental organization that works towards electoral democracy in Nepal, was involved with working with the Constituent Assembly up until its collapse. When I spoke with her, she was more optimistic than most about what the institution had accomplished. “People have the idea that the CA didn’t do anything, but that’s not true. At the time it dissolved last May, the leaders had 95% of the constitution written. The 270 questions surrounding the contentious issues had been reduced down to 80.” The downside to these accomplishments, she acknowledged, was that most of it was done informally outside of the CA, beyond the purview of democratic practice.

When the Constituent Assembly dissolved, the country was taken by surprise. After elections in 2008, the deadline to finish the constitution had been May 2010. The deadline was extended four times because each time it came to a close, there was still no constitution and no real alternative to the CA. “The Nepali style is to think that everything will be alright,” Deepti said. “Everyone was really laid back because most of the work was done and they were in a rapid state of discussion regarding the contentious issues. But, you know, you can’t stop time, and it slipped by, and when it came to an end, I think the people were shocked.” The CA members were possibly the most shocked of all. Since many of the large decisions were taking place outside the assembly, CA members were reliant on updates from the media – neither the CA chairperson nor the party leaders came to the CA building to provide updates, and the members outside the inner circle were in the dark about what was happening. “Truly, we were like distressed children without guardians in the CA building,” said one ex-CA member in an interview with Martin Chautari about the experience. For weeks leading up to the May 27th deadline, the country was racked with protest rallies, tensions, and shutdowns. And yet, on May 28th when the announcements were made that the CA had dissolved, the streets were silent. The ideals that had for so long infused the revolutionary momentum in Nepal were slowly dying, and so was the faith of the people.

By far the most contentious issue that held up a constitutional consensus is the idea of federalism. Federalism advocates that Nepal be divided up into federal states along ethnic lines. Ethnic minorities and other groups who have traditionally been marginalized in the political system in the past are most commonly the ones who endorse federalism, as they see it as a way to get their voices and issues heard in spheres from which they have been traditionally excluded. Yet, the country’s more conservative parties worry that such a structure would encourage Nepal to devolve into erosive communalist tendencies.

Nearly two years ago, when the country’s discussions of federalism were in full swing and the CA was not yet dissolved, I met a CA member from the Nepali Congress, a more conservative party on the issue of federalism. We were having dinner together, and the politician, in between bites of his rice and curry, would periodically run his hands down his front to smooth his beige kurta. “There is anarchy in Nepal these days,” he bemoaned. “There’s no rule of law, no obedience, and everyone fends for themselves. It’s because the politicians are corrupt and people do not believe in the government. Like Cambodia, or even Libya, Nepal will destroy itself. There will be violence on a grander scale than the country has ever seen before.” His dire, if also extreme, comments are what some fear could go wrong if federalism were to go awry.

When the Constituent Assembly ended, the debates around federalism were still unresolved. The CA committee had initially proposed that the country be divided into 14 provinces according to a combination of ethnic identity and economy viability. The conservative parties advocated for six provinces based only on economic viability. Political leaders were purportedly negotiating for 11 provinces at the point that the CA dissolved, and talks have not progressed any further.

In a televised address minutes before midnight on May 27th, Prime Minister Baburam Bhatterai announced that while the CA would be dissolved, executive powers would remain with him and his cabinet under the interim constitution of 2007. Yet, because such a political move was unprecedented and there was no legal framework to address such a situation, the legitimacy of the decision was disputed. Bhatterai set a tentative election date for the coming November, but rival parties did not want the Maoist leader to be running the government during elections. Bhatterai argued back that he did not want to leave his post before the parties had agreed on a plan for how elections would be supervised. Squabbling and confusion ensued as the country wondered what the best way forward would be. Meanwhile, the ex-CA members, who no longer had any political duties, returned to their normal life. Some went back to their villages, and others resumed their careers as lawyers.

Elections didn’t happen that November, to the surprise of no one really. Without a parliament, various civic functions were gradually shutting down. Then, in March of this year, an agreement was signed between the country’s four main parties to appoint Chief Justice Khil Raj Rejmi as the head of the interim government. The agreement mandated that the chief justice would hold the position until elections happened, after which he would return to his original post. The parties agreed that he could lead the government until this November at the latest. Various political groups were unhappy with the appointment, as they saw it as a failure of the country’s separation of powers. There were widespread protests throughout the country. But, in the middle of June, the announcement was made: The official date for elections is November 19, 2013. Suddenly, the political quarters of the country were abuzz with planning and preparations.

Down a muddy gully in central Kathmandu is a branch office for the United Marxist-Leninists. It is on a third floor of a building packed in next to a women’s nursing college, and as I trudged up to the office in the monsoon rain, the laughter and shouting voices from the college reverberated off the cement walls and followed me up the stairwell. The three-room UML office is stark, filled with little more than wooden tables and chairs and a large poster of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and a couple founding party leaders that was pasted to the wall. When I arrived, the place was deserted except for a secretary, who told me to “please wait”. After a few minutes of waiting, UML party member Yogesh Bhatterai arrived, and after introducing himself, sheepishly informed me that usually the office is crowded with people, but the heavy rains kept most people out of the office that day.

Yogesh and his party started campaigning more actively again when they heard the election announcement. They have been out working at the ground level, organizing regular meetings in the neighborhoods around Kathmandu. Yogesh himself is a thoughtful man who joined the party after heading the party’s student group back in university. “What we are noticing already is the deep frustration that the populace currently has,” he told me. “They have so many questions for us. And from our side, we are trying to understand the people. We are trying to realize our mistakes, and learn some lessons from the past. We are working to convince the people that things will be better this time. Unfortunately, the people are doubtful when we tell them these things.” A concern that many Nepalis have is that constitution writing will begin again from square one once the CA is reestablished. When I posed this concern to Yogesh, he admitted that ideally the CA members would start from where they left off, but there would first have to be a consensus among the parties to proceed in such a way. In other words, there’s no guarantee that the points that were agreed upon previously will actually be integrated into the new constitution or government. Certain interest groups such as women’s rights groups are especially worried about this, given the time they spent negotiating in the last CA.

One of the biggest critiques of Nepali politics that has emerged in recent years is that despite the revolution, the common man and the political man still operate in very disconnected spaces. “You go to the village and try to talk to someone there about the sambidhaan [constitution], and people will respond, ‘Dhaan?’” Deepti at IDEA noted, as dhaan in Nepali means “rice paddy.” Kosmos Biswoka, editor-in-chief at Republica, one of the country’s leading dailies, also echoed this sentiment. “In the last assembly, there was very little contact with the actual people. The villagers, do they have any idea what federalism is about? Their main concern is earning bread and butter every day. They don’t really care about federalism. They ask, if we get federalism, does that mean we will get water?”

However, unlike so many others who have opinions about politics these days, Biswoka is happily optimistic about Nepal’s future. “It’s not easy to make these grand changes in the country’s design. It takes time, which a lot of people don’t seem to understand.” Already, there is so much happening and changing, he said: For the first time things like minority rights have entered political discourse, no small feat for a country that historically has had such rigid social hierarchies. A Dalit himself, Biswoka has been impressed by the growing awareness in recent years and how communities have begun talking about how to empower themselves. “As for the politicians’ claims that the constitution is on the verge of completion, that’s bullshit. They’ve left the hardest issues for the end, and knowing them, it will take a while for them to sort everything out. But, I’m in no hurry. The country is moving forward.”

When I asked the people I spoke with whether they believed that elections would actually happen in November given the government’s penchant for capriciousness, the unanimous answer was a tentative yes. The answer seemed to come less from faith in the government’s word and more from an uncertainty and slight unease about what would happen there were no elections. All agreed that if elections are not held, the country could possibly turn violent. The government too seems to sense this, and so far is making the best attempt possible to stick to its announced date. However, as of now there are some vital hurdles standing in the way. Most significantly, there are as many as 42 dissident parties who are protesting the elections because the date was announced without consulting them. The parties accuse the chief justice-led government of endorsing the interests of the four main parties, and refuse to participate in the elections unless the main parties meet a set of demands. The most prominent group leading the election protests is the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, a splinter party from the Maoist parent party created in June 2012. This new and slightly more radical party has argued that the establishment party surrendered too much in the peace process. The lack of participation of the CPN-M and the other parties has the potential to hurt the legitimacy of elections. In addition, nearly a quarter of Nepal’s population lives and works abroad, and it will be necessary to get absentee ballots in order in time. There’s also the issue of registering new young voters and figuring out what to do with those who do not have citizenship cards, the essential document needed to cast a vote. It is a lot for the notoriously inefficient government to achieve in a few short months. As we finished our conversation in the IDEA office, Deepti added, “The situation now is to wait and see. Really, you can’t predict anything.”

Meanwhile, back in the room behind the fruit shop, Krishna was busy preparing for the events of the upcoming weeks. He told me of plans to travel to villages, to launch a national youth force, and to participate in a motorcade rally in Kathmandu in which he and his party members would drive around the city with flags and slogans hanging off their vehicles. His teenage daughter was in the corner cooking the evening’s meal, listening attentively to our conversation. Krishna gathered his papers and began to practice his lines. “Just you wait and see,” he smiled and said to me, “We’re going to make it all the way to the big man’s house!”