The Political Situation in Nepal – Interview

February 28, 2007 at 2:32 pm 1 comment

The Political Situation in Nepal

[Interview] Nepalese will face serious ethnic turmoil without a federal system

— Laxmi Prasad Tamang (anjan) 

Mahendra Lawoti is the president of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies (ANHS) and an associate fellow at the Asia Society in New York. His teaching and research interests cover international development, democratization, constitutionalism and political institutions, ethnic politics, insurgencies and South Asian politics. Mahendra is an assistant professor of political science at Western Michigan University. He has previously taught at the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned his Ph.D., and Wake Forest University.

©2007 Anjan

Mahendra is the author of Toward a Democratic Nepal: Inclusive Political Institutions for a Multicultural Society (Sage 2005, third reprint 2006; soon to be translated into Nepali), Samabesi Sambidhan Sabha Ra Rajyako Punarsamrachana (Inclusive Constituent Assembly and the Restructuring of the State) (forthcoming, NISP), editor of Contentious Politics and Democratization in Nepal (Sage, April 2007) and author of numerous articles in national and international journals.

Although Mahendra currently lives in the United States, he is a Nepali citizen and has good knowledge about Nepalese politics. He was recently in Kathmandu to present a working paper at a program. In an interview on Tuesday, I talked with Mahendra about the electoral and federal system in the context of Nepal.

“The political situation is still confusing as the dateline to the election to the constituent assembly is not declared by the Nepal government till now,” he said.

Here are excerpts from that interview:

Could you please tell us the types of electoral systems that are popular in the modern world?

There are primarily two types of electoral systems: the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system adopted in Nepal in 1990 and the proportional representative (PR) system. The PR system has many sub-groups. There are mixed systems as well.

The difference between the two primary types is that the number of seats belonging to the political parties match votes they receive under the PR system, whereas in the FPTP system, large parties get more seats than their vote sharing while small parties get less seats than their vote percentage. In 1991 and 1999, the Nepali Congress, which was the largest party, got around 35 percent of votes but got more than 50 percent of seats. The difference between the vote and seat is called disproportionate.

In the context of Nepal what type of electoral system is better and why?

For the regular elections, a mixed system that corrects disproportionality created by the FPTP is better. PR could be inclusive and proportionate but it is weak in accountability. As people can only vote for parties, they cannot vote against representative they do not like in the PR.

Half the seats should be elected with the FPTP system. It will ensure more accountability but will create disproportion. The other half seats should be distributed to correct the disproportion. If party A gets 40 percent of votes but 60 percent of seats under the FPTP election for half of the Parliament seats, then while distributing the remaining half seats through PR, party A should be given only 20 percent of seats. Thus, the total seat percentage of the party A will be 40 percent, which is equal to votes it received. This type of mixed system will be proportionate and strong in accountability as well.

For the Constituent Assembly, which is elected only once, the accountability issue is not that important. Thus, all the seats should be elected through a PR system.

What is a federal system?

A federal system constitutionally divides power between the regions and the center. In a non-federal system (unitary system), the center through a simple cabinet decision can always take power away from the lower level governments. This has happened in many countries when the regional and local governments were ruled by the opposition parties. In a federal system, the center cannot take away power given to the regions. It can do so through constitutional amendments, which is difficult.

In the context of Nepalese geo-politics can Nepal be united under federalism?

In fact, democratic Nepal can only be united peacefully under federalism. Non-democratic countries can remain united without federalism because people do not have rights to express and mobilize and the state can easily repress. That is not so easy in democracies.

Some examples can make the point clear. Sri Lanka denied demands for autonomy through federalism by the Tamils in the seventies. The denial led to the emergence of the separatist movement because the Tamils felt that their rights could not be protected in a unitary system dominated by the Sinhalese. Now the Sri Lankan government is ready to provide autonomy but it may not settle the problem because positions have hardened due to lives lost and other costs incurred. Similarly, during the Indian independence movement, the Muslim league wanted India organized along federalism that would allow Muslims autonomy in the regions of their dominance. The Indian National Congress rejected the proposal. The Muslim League went on to demand for a separate state.

When the Indian National Congress finally agreed to federalism, the movement for separate Muslim state had already gained momentum. On the other hand, in Tamil Nadu in South India, there was a separatist movement in the fifties but it died down after India was reorganized along linguistic federal arrangements. Likewise, the Punjab conflict and many movements in the Northeast subsided after more autonomy was given. Thus, the denial of federalism could fuel separatist movement and separation while timely autonomy could prevent conflicts and separation.

Though the government has assured to convert Nepal into a federal system through constitutional amendments and a bill has already been tabled in the Interim Parliament for this purpose, it has been criticized on the ground that the prime minister is still vested with unlimited powers. What is your opinion about this?

Power centralization is the main causes behind different problems that we are facing today (e.g., ethnic exclusion, the armed conflict, bad governance). The king’s position became more precarious after he tried to concentrate most powers in his hands. Likewise, the concentration of power in the PM in the Interim Constitution would also create problems. There is a popular saying that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When power is concentrated in a single person/institution, two things happen. First, it is difficult to hold that person accountable because other institutions/people do not have the power to do so. When power is given to anyone, it can always be abused despite the best of intentions. This happens everywhere. The way to address that problem is to decentralize the power by empowering the grassroots level people and institutions so that there is a check and balance of the power.

By concentrating too much power in the PM, this avenue has been severely eroded. There is no formal mechanism that can check the use and abuses of powers by the prime minister. For checking power, non-formal means (such as protests, rebellions, etc.) should be used and they would only create instability. Second, if the PM fails to deliver, then crises would occur. When power is distributed among different branches and levels of governments and other agencies, if one agency fails to deliver others may deliver. So it could control the situation from getting worse. Under the current Interim Constitution, only the PM can deliver. If he fails, Nepal will face a major crisis.

Madheshis and other indigenous groups are demanding autonomy and federalism. If the government fails to meet their demand, what will be the outcome?

If the government denies federalism, Nepal will first encounter ethnic violence (insurgencies, riots, etc.). Later on, the movement could turn into separatist movements and Nepal may eventually disintegrate.



Entry filed under: Articles.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Son of Tirhut  |  March 1, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    Short, simple abd easily understandable.

    Jai Madhes!!!!!

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