x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Politics in Nepal: a hopeless mess or beacon of hope?

Tiny Nepal, beset by years of political infighting and civil war, has lessons for other states looking to enfranchise marginalised ethnic communities.

Nepal's politicians may not look like they have much to teach the rest of the world. The Maoists, who are the largest party, were once guerrilla insurgents whose 10-year war against the state up to 2006 led to the deaths of thousands. The peace process has dragged on interminably, with four different prime ministers in as many years and four deadlines missed for writing a new constitution.

And since the end of May, the country hasn't even had a parliament, and the election commission recently ruled that there is no legal framework for holding the elections scheduled for November.

Yet, amid all this chaos are signs of hope, since the crisis of recent months stems from a discussion about how to share power with Nepal's marginalised ethnic communities that puts it leagues ahead of other countries in its neighbourhood and beyond.

Nepal's leaders set themselves a pretty daunting challenge after holding their first fully democratic elections in 2008: turning their country from an authoritarian monarchy into a federal democracy, while also recovering from a civil war and trying to keep South Asia's weakest economy afloat. They have nonetheless managed to resolve most of the constitutional dilemmas in relatively transparent fashion, including the thorny issue of disarming and rehabilitating former Maoist fighters.

But the final - and most bitterly divisive - obstacle has been the question of how the country should be divided up: how many states there should be in the new federal republic, and how much power they should be given to run their own affairs.

That may sound like a fairly wonkish debate, but it has potentially huge ramifications for Nepalese society. It's an issue that goes to the heart of the challenge of establishing modern, nation-state democracy in places where poverty, entrenched social hierarchy and a multitude of different ethnicities often exclude large parts of the population from its benefits.

At last count, Nepal had 102 different ethnic and caste groups among a population of just 30 million, yet its major institutions - the government, bureaucracy, judiciary, media and security forces - have been dominated for centuries by upper-caste Bahuns and Chhetris (equivalent to Indian Brahmins and Kshatriyas) based in the capital of Kathmandu.

Reorganising the states has become the main vehicle for redressing the balance. Each community is angling for a set-up that will give it a demographic advantage in future state elections, and they all want the states to have enough political power to keep Kathmandu elites out of their business.

Not surprisingly, many influential upper caste groups are unhappy about this, and their representatives in the leading conservative parties (the Nepali Congress and, despite their name, the Unified Marxist-Leninists) are doing all they can to derail discussions over federalism. This has sparked dozens of protests and strikes, many of which have turned violent. But at least Nepal is having this debate, something other countries in the region have doggedly refused to do.

Take Sri Lanka, where the Sinhalese Buddhist elite appears entirely uninterested in reaching out to its Tamil minority since crushing their insurgency in 2009, and the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa seems happy to slide ever closer towards dictatorship.

Or Myanmar, whose reformist government has won gushing praise for suspending (not annulling) sentences against political prisoners and letting a handful of Aung San Suu Kyi's party into parliament, but which also restarted last June a war with Kachin rebels that had been dormant for 17 years. Despite a spate of tentative ceasefires with other ethnic groups, there seems little appetite among the Buddhist elite for genuine power-sharing with minorities.

Even India, which revels in its tremendous diversity and has many constitutional guarantees and political movements to help the marginalised, barely listens when ethnic minorities raise concerns. Its northeastern region has long been neglected by what locals consider an alien administration far away in New Delhi, and is riddled with ethnic militias as a result. The recent violence in Assam state has been a reminder of the region's volatility. India also has its own Maoist insurgency, now largely centred around deprived tribal people in its central heartland, which the government has largely failed to understand in political - rather than security - terms.

So Nepal deserves some acclaim for its efforts towards sharing power. Its success could provide a beacon to others.

The Maoist party, in particular, deserves credit for listening to the concerns of these communities, even if they are motivated by tactical interests. Many in the West were worried about how an extremist guerrilla outfit would take to political power after their election win in 2008 and indeed, they have often looked immature and obstructive.

But their current prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, has shown a willingness to reach across the political spectrum and build ties with India, in the face of stiff opposition from hardliners in his own party. The Maoists recently went further and established an alliance with pro-federal parties that will ensure the ethnic issue remains central to the next election, whenever it comes.

The Maoists' willingness to compromise needs to spread to other parties. The conservative parties need to recognise that Nepalese society has been fundamentally shaken up by the violence and political chaos of recent years, and that the aspirations of marginalised communities can no longer be ignored.

Eric Randolph is a freelance foreign policy analyst who blogs at kikobor.wordpress.com

On Twitter: @EricWRandolph