Comment & analysis

Nepal’s constitution: between consolidation and contention

27 October 2017 Anurag Acharya Nepal’s constitution: between consolidation and contention

Following a 10-year civil war, Nepal’s constitution set the country on the path towards elections and was meant to bring peace and stability to the nation. But with the country’s diversity of ethnic groups, languages and castes, many feel that it doesn’t go far enough. Anurag Acharya looks at the recent local elections and explores what they mean for Nepal’s future direction.

When a photo began to make the rounds in the media showing 116-year-old Bhairab Damai of Sarlahi’s Ishwarpur Municipality leaving a polling station with a broad smile, it captured the celebratory mood that many felt as Nepal entered the final phase of its first local elections in two decades. 

The elections were mandated by the 2015 constitution, which established a three-tier federal governance system with representation at the national, provincial and local levels. This devolved system was meant to reflect Nepal’s diversity and take into account its divisions along ethnic, linguistic, caste and gender lines. Although the process of drafting the constitution forced lawmakers and politicians to grapple with tough questions head on – such as where to draw state boundaries or how to ensure fair political representation of Nepal’s diverse populations – the resulting document received a mixed reception. While some hailed it as a major step forward, others felt that it would do little to address their concerns.

These concerns resurfaced when local elections were held earlier this year. Seen as a central piece of the newly devolved political system – allowing people to engage more directly with the government and help inform its policies and plans – local elections nonetheless spurred tensions in some provinces in the southern region where outstanding demands for better linguistic, cultural and political representation delayed the elections by several weeks.

As the new federal and provincial governments come to power after next month's elections there is a real opportunity to address the concerns of those who have historically been neglected or marginalised. This could be achieved through increased representation in politics, but also more inclusive governance at the local and provincial levels, more focused development efforts – particularly around the agricultural and industrial sectors – and the promotion of local languages, cultures and identities.

What’s happened so far?

There were three phases of local elections taking place across the country, with different provinces voting at different times. . Because many of its ethnic groups have challenged the constitution’s provisions (and have taken to the streets in protest), the fact that the elections went ahead is significant in itself.

The first two phases were held earlier in other provinces – on 14 May and 28 June. While these early stages also saw a high voter turn-out, the overall political environment had been dampened by protests and violent incidents in several districts in the run up to the polling dates. By contrast, the third phase of local elections, which took place in the typically turbulent eight districts[1] of Province 2, saw a 77 percent voter turnout and was generally said to be peaceful.

Political groups[2] from the restive Terai region[3] (also known as Madhes) had boycotted the first two phases of local elections to express their dissatisfaction with what they saw as an imposition of a divisive constitution. Fifty-eight people, including eight policemen, lost their lives amid violent protests across the region in the run-up to and the immediate aftermath of the constitution being adopted. Since then, tensions have festered, as evidenced by the deaths of four civilians in Saptari in Province 2 earlier this year, when police opened fire on a crowd that had gathered to protest a political campaign run by the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).

After the boycott of the first two phases of elections failed to produce any positive results, Rastriya Janata Party (RJP), the largest regional party in Madhes that has been spearheading a movement for constitutional amendment, decided to participate in the third phase of elections. They decided to take part after their proposed amendment was struck down by a majority in the parliament. RJP’s participation in the third phase of local elections demonstrates their admission that the make-up of the current parliament does not favour their proposed amendment, which mainly touches on issues of federal demarcation, citizenship, language, and provincial jurisdiction and inclusion.

RJP's decision to take part in local elections also indicated its willingness to participate peacefully in the upcoming provincial and parliamentary elections in December. While this could result in an institutionalisation of Nepal's constitution, unresolved points of contention could also lead to fierce political battles among different national and regional political groups – many of which are based on identity groups – potentially leading to an escalation of violence.

The bumpy road ahead

Even when the new federal and provinicial governments take over in December, securing wider support for the constitution will remain challenging, especially among marginalised and traditionally excluded ethnic populations. Political dialogue will continue to be fractured and divided between national and regional actors, especially around the issues of constitutional amendment and allegations of state repression during the protests in Terai’s districts. The debates among these groups have already polarised many within different ethnic groups. The ruling and opposition parties in the next parliament could seek to bridge some of these divides by promoting constructive dialogue within parliament to tackle some of the biggest issues facing minority ethnic groups.

The political landscape has been further complicated by non-parliamentary and extremist forces gaining a foot-hold, especially in provinces that have districts located within the Terai. A political group led by an ex-Maoist commander named Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplav’ has already expanded its base in western Nepal, declaring that it aims to stage an armed revolt. Biplav, whose group split from the Communist Party of Nepal- Maoist Centre (CPN-MC)[4] after the first Constituent Assembly was dissolved, has mobilised support for rejecting the constitution.

Similarly, the Alliance for Independent Madhesh (AIM)[5], which leads a campaign for an independent state made up of several districts located in Terai, also has a small but growing number of supporters. Although AIM’s president was arrested on sedition charges in February ahead of the first phase of local elections, his supporters have been involved in several anti-election campaigns across the Terai. Additionally, the region has been vulnerable to armed group activity in the past, and there is a possibility of resurgence if the situation continues to escalate.

Despite these challenges, local elections in Province 2 have finally got the ball rolling on consolidating Nepal's new local and provincial structures.

An opportunity for change

With the new federal government taking over in December there is an expectation that many outstanding grievances, including those of exclusion and marginalisation of disadvantaged groups, would be addressed through political representation and seats at various levels of state institutions. Inclusive governments at the provincial and local level could also help to kick-start development and revive local economies, creating more jobs in industries that need them – particularly in agriculture and the industrial sector. The provincial governments will have an unprecedented opportunity to promote local languages, cultures and identities that have historically been marginalised. This will go a long way to empowering ethnic populations who have so far been socially, politically and economically excluded.

As the process of constitutional consolidation leads to social, economic and political transformation, there needs to be a genuine effort from the state to allow for dissenting national and regional voices to raise concerns and address grievances of those who still feel excluded. Otherwise these grievances will continue to polarise different groups and chip away at the legitimacy of the new political system. 

Photo: Bikram Rauniyar/NepalLive

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[1] Saptari, Siraha, Dhanusha, Mahottari, Sarlahi, Bara, Parsa and Rautahat.

[2] Apart from political parties registered with Nepal's Election Commission, there are other political groups in Nepal's Terai region, including Janakpur based youth-led group Madhes Andolan Sangharsha Samiti, Terai Madhes Rastriya Abhiyan and Alliance for Independent Madhesh movement. While all registered political parties joined the third phase of local elections, many of the other political groups stood against them.

[3] Nepal's Terai region stretches along its southern plains, adjoining the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal.

[4] The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which led the 'people's war' from 1996-2006, united with smaller communist parties to form the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN[M]). However, the party split in 2012 when senior leaders such as Mohan Baidya 'Kiran' and Netra Bikram Chand 'Biplav' established the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M). CPN-M split again in November 2014, when Netra Bikram Chand established the Communist Part of Nepal (Maoist). The main party now goes by the name Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC)

[5] Alliance for Independent Madhesh (AIM) was founded by Dr C.K. Raut, who is also the president and is said to be part of a coalition against the ‘ruling Pahadis’ and their discrimination against the people of Terai or Madhes.