Have just spent several days in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, talking to people about the ceasefire agreement, the current political stalemate, and the drafting of the new constitution. This is my third trip to the country, and it is a fascinating place.
Nepal has over thirty million people – a new census next year may show an even larger population. Canada does not have an embassy here – although Nepal does have an ambassador in Ottawa – and spends about five million a year on aid. Nepal is a poor country, its rural and mountainous communities are isolated, and its income is sustained by remittance payments from workers who have left for India, Malaysia and the Gulf States. The flight from Doha to Kathmandu is full, but the country’s economy has slowed down. My seatmate on the flight said he was coming home early from Doha because there just wasn’t enough work.
When I flew in I was met by Sheri Meyerhoffer, who is in charge of the programme jointly sponsored by the Canadian and Nepal Bar Associations.
Sheri has been doing an amazing job, knows everyone and has great access to the key legal and political leaders in the country. We drive from the airport through the city in the morning rush hour. Any sense of Kathmandu as a Shangri-La is quickly lost as we encounter pollution, noise, and traffic jams of motor bikes and cars through narrow streets never intended for this technology. Kathmandu is on a major earthquake faultline, the brick structures will collapse like so many cards if and when it comes.
When I came here first, the king was still on his throne, a fragile ceasefire between the Maoists and the Royal Nepalese Army had just been signed, and the debate had begun on what form the new government and constitution would take. The conference I attended in 2007 focused on what federalism could mean for Nepal. There was deep resentment at the dominance of the structures and biases that had supported the royal family in Kathmandu, and a growing conviction that only a wider dispersal of power and a new politics of inclusion that would recognise long marginalised ethnic groups and castes, as well as the geographic isolation of many areas, would meet the needs of the moment. That feeling came to predominate the constituent assembly, elected in 2008, which was supposed to produce a new constitution in two years, by May of 2010. When I came next, last winter, it was clear discussions were proving complicated, and the work of the assembly was extended for one more year.
Discussions are still complicated. The ceasefire agreement was supposed to be followed by further decisions about integrating the People’s Liberation Army and the Royal Nepalese Army, and disarming opponents of the government. Neither has happened, and twenty thousand Maoists continue to train in their camps.
The constituent assembly has been locked in a lengthy battle over the election of a prime minister and the formation of a new government. Seven ballots have still not produced a result. No party has a majority, and a compromise has still not been found.
Basic decisions on the constitution ha ve yet to be made, although talking goes on behind the scenes. The monarchy is gone. Nepal will have a “democratic, republican, and federal government”. But there is much meat to go on the bones. The powers of president and prime minister, the independence of the courts, the number, borders, and powers of provinces – these are all up in the air.
Meanwhile, the people of Nepal grow increasingly cynical and frustrated with “the politicians” who live in Kathmandu. Ceasefires that are not followed by further decisions are a risky business: no one seems to want a return to hostilities, but that cannot be ruled out. There is little trust among the key actors, and both armies continue to train and flex their muscles and resist the twin requirements of integration and disarming.
My companion on the trip was John Sims, the recently retired deputy minister of Justice, and the focus of our presentations was the need for the parties to focus on what it will take to “get to yes” and make change happen. Creating provincial governments and devolving real responsibilities to these new units is not an easy business, and decisions on how this will be done can’t wait forever. The best professional advice in the world can’t be a substitute for decisions that can only be made by the Nepalese people themselves.
Peace agreements, as we saw in Sri Lanka and are seeing today in Northern Ireland, are fragile when they are really ceasefires between deeply opposed forces whose supporters will not go away, and whose views have not changed that much. It takes leadership and imagination to make a breakthrough. That has still not happened.
There is today, after two and half years of discussion and debate, still no draft constitution and no agreement on fundamentals such as the number of federal units, the type of political system, and the pace of state devolution and restructuring. There are many reports, proposals, and analyses. There will be more, and much advice on how other countries have done it.
Until there is the political will to move ahead with this constitutional project these studies will lie on a shelf. The work is there to be done. But the starter gun has yet to go off. And there are many hands competing to hold the gun.
Nepal’s constitutional odyssey has really been a sixty year project, not just a two and half year one. Years of war, death, destruction, homelessness and economic stagnation have gone by while political forces have struggled for power.
Through all this the millions of citizens of the country have struggled to make a living, and to survive. By any international indicator Nepal has fallen behind. The rise of the Asian tigers, the most rapid economic transformations in the history of the world in China, India, and elsewhere in the Asian neighbourhood, have left Nepal behind.
All the expertise in the world, foreign and domestic, will be for naught if there is no political will to break the logjam.
Making a constitution is not about the triumph of one theory or another, or the victory of one side or the other. It is about improving the condition of the people. Families cannot eat theories. Unless the making of the constitution transcends day to day politics, while remaining close to the condition of the people, it will not succeed.
There is no point in debating further the theory of federalism in the abstract. The focus has to be on what will work for Nepal. The answer to that question cannot come from outsiders.
Agreement must be reached on the number of sub-national units. Until that happens, the discussion of restructuring is about castles in the air. And there is even less point in debating where the furniture in these castles should go.
Examples of successful devolution can certainly be provided, and the experiences of other countries can be shared, but the meaning of these examples and experiences will only take shape once the path to a certain and defined devolution is firmly set. The impetus for this cannot come from others. It can only come from within Nepal itself.
I have of course heard much criticism in Nepal of foreign experts. “Let Nepalis get on with the job”. I share this sentiment. A particular model of democracy cannot be exported like so many cars or refrigerators.
But this does not avoid the uncomfortable fact that people who pay the price for the current paralysis are not the members of the Constituent Assembly or the leaders of political parties, let alone international observers. They are the millions who are waiting for their lives to improve.
I spoke last time of the need to “mind the gap”. The gap between words and deeds, between leaders and citizens, between hope and achievement, is getting wider. This is actually dangerous, because political nature abhors a vacuum. Patience has its limits, and the connection between constitutional reform and the condition of the people has to be clearly established before the constitution can become a truly popular document
Successful constitutional politics transcends partisanship, and looks ahead instead of attempting to redress old grievances. It is not afraid to draw on international experience, but refuses to follow slavishly any foreign model.
Don’t operate in the name of a theory. Make the changes that are ‘sufficient unto the day’ – it is a framework you are seeking, not a detailed blueprint for every detail of decision making. Constitutional politics is about making the foundation and the framework, setting out basic principles, the underlying values as well as the essential institutions. I spoke earlier of the risks of building castles in the air.
By contrast, real politics and events are about building the walls and ceilings, the furniture and above all the spirit that makes a home on the ground. As we say in Canada, this is where the rubber hits the road.
The wheels have to stop spinning. It is not just about processes and programmes. It is about leadership, creating the habits of trust and confidence that will make a difference, and the institutions that reinforce these habits, at both the national and the local level. It means fighting corruption, the cancer that gnaws at trust and is the great and insidious enemy of the rule of law.
There’s always an excuse to deny a problem and to delay dealing with it. But the problem will only get worse . Great leadership is not about force, or ‘getting my way’. Mandela, Gandhi – these examples of goodness, humility and effectiveness are all around us.
They have only to be applied and followed.
A positive scenario would see substantial progress on the future of the armies (the UN mission on this issue has been extended for four months), the formation of a new government under a new Prime Minister, and the emergence of a draft constitution that can be shared and debated before any final decisions are made. A failure to carry through on each of these three fronts could lead to an unhealthy unravelling of earlier agreements, and more uncertainty and stagnation.
Fingers crossed for a positive scenario !
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.