Lost time

From Nepali Times, ISSUE #395 (11 APRIL 2008 – 17 APRIL 2008)

They said the people would never rise up, until the People’s Movement surprised us all. They said the parliament could never be revived, but it sprang to life. They said elections would never happen after being twice postponed, but it happened. Now they tell us there will be chaos after the elections. How many more times do you want to be wrong? The sheer willpower of the citizenry that generated the People’s Movement has propelled us into the Constituent Assembly. The constitution will get written amidst turbulence, but it will be written. Nepal is just not structured to deliver a cut-and-dried peace process to those who want to wrap it up and be gone to the next world hotspot. Instead, we muddle through and get ahead, with the political parties in command of the speed and the direction.

The Constituent Assembly is not just part and parcel of the peace process, but a state-restructuring exercise foremost. It also represents a return to pluralism and representative government after nine long years. This is where the emerging, conflicting and complementary demands of communities will be discussed, instead of the frustrated recourse to burning tyres.

The Nepali spirit will see us through in the days ahead, including the vulnerable period over the next three weeks while the ballots are counted. The political party that gets the largest number of votes will take the lead in fashioning the new polity, but it must carry along all political forces including the Maoists in the running of the government and drafting the constitution.

The assembly has to be called within 21 days of the final results. The first task at hand will be the parties acting on their manifestos to declare the country a republic. To be gracious, the historical kingship can be thanked for its role in the creation of the nation state 239 years ago.

As the constitution-making begins in earnest, the 601 framers must start with a philosophical commitment to values incuded in the superseded 1990 constitution: multiparty pluralism, representative government, fundamental freedoms and human rights.

Looking beyond, a set of draft directive principles developed by the Interim Parliament (‘federalism’, ‘secularism’ and ‘inclusion’ included) will serve as the basis for the sovereign Assembly to begin work on developing a samabesi loktantra. The definition of federalism will be the most challenging task before the CA, and the framers must rise above populism to define a provincial structure that is practical and economically sound, while responding to identity and inclusion demands.

There will be those outside the party-political process who will question the right and ability of the Constituent Assembly to represent the entire populace, but the elected members will surely be much more empowered to respond to such challenges than the appointed nominees of the Interim Parliament. Not to forget that the proportional 335 seats, to be approved by the Election Commission according to the population categories, will make the CA among the most inclusive legislative bodies in the world.

While the Assembly itself will be relatively inclusive and representative, a countrywide participatory consultative process must support the assembly and allow the citizens to own the document that emerges. It is the new constitution, more than any institution, language or manufactured mythology, that will henceforth provide the glue to bind the people of Nepal.

The Assembly’s other task is of course to serve as a legislature to back and watchdog the executive branch over the next two years and more. Immediately, it will be important to separate the positions of head of state and head of government, responsibilities borne over the last two years by Girija Prasad Koirala. The ministers of the coalition government which emerges in the days ahead will have to be answerable to the prime minister rather than to their individual party bosses.

The new government must make haste to ensure that the people begin to enjoy the long-delayed peace dividend, and it must energetically restart development projects after a decade of waiting. The international community must help.

There is so much more that the needs to be done, to give the public confidence in state administration and rule of law. We should not forget the need for accountability for the atrocities of the past, by whichever side. The matter of ‘security sector reform’ must be addressed, bringing the Nepal Army even more firmly under civilian control. The Maoist fighters in the cantonments must be brought into the mainstream as a priority.

The Constituent Assembly will write our new Basic Law, but the immediate hope of those who voted yesterday is that the elections will usher political stability, help mend the tattered social fabric and trigger economic growth. We have to make up for a dozen years of lost time.

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