When Nepal's political parties extended the Constituent Assembly's term in May, they pledged to write a draft constitution by the end of August. But this prospect has dimmed as four major issues remain unresolved. Major political parties, especially the Nepali Congress (NC) and Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), have divergent positions on the form of government, electoral system, nature of federalism, and the notion of prior rights for ethnic communities. Non-Maoist parties have also insisted there must be progress on the peace process before constitution-writing.

In recent weeks though, there have been efforts to bridge the gap on contentious issues through a task-force set up by the Constitutional Committee's sub-committee on dispute resolution. The taskforce was headed by Sadbhavana Party co-chairman Laxman Lal Karna, and included constitutional lawyers belonging to the bigger parties. It has submitted a ‘verbal proposal' to the sub committee.

While the NC had demanded a traditional Westminster parliamentary system, the Maoists had argued strongly in favour of a directly elected president who would be the head of government and state. In the task-force, the different parties seem to have arrived at a compromise formula, on the lines of the ‘French model'. Speaking exclusively to The Hindu, Mr. Karna said, “The President will be directly elected by the people, and will be responsible for foreign relations, and the army. The Prime Minister will be elected by the Parliament and take charge of day to day administrative matters, budget and governance.” This however remains a tentative proposal, and no party has given up its original stand in the negotiations yet.

On the electoral system, the NC had pushed for direct first-past-the-post elections while the Maoists had initially argued for a fully proportional representation based system, on the lines of a multi-member parliamentary constituency. But there is an emerging consensus around a mixed electoral system, similar to the one that was used in the Constituent Assembly elections. A leader involved in the negotiations said, “A certain proportion of seats would be based on direct elections, while the rest would be PR based where parties would select candidates based on their vote share. The selection of candidates will be inclusive and proportional, giving space to marginalised communities.”

On federalism, the CA's committee on state restructuring has proposed the formation of 14 states, in accordance with the position of the Maoists who had a majority in the committee. The NC, in an unofficial proposal, has said seven states would be appropriate. It has also demanded the formation of a State Restructuring Commission as stipulated by the interim constitution. But both the Maoists and the United Democratic Madhesi Front have opposed this. Maoist negotiator Khimlal Devkota told The Hindu, “It is too late to form an SRC. Instead, our chairman Prachanda has proposed the formation of a team of specialists. We can arrive at a political decision on the number of states; the criteria would be identity and capacity. The specialists can then give us suggestions on exact boundaries.”

Sources say Maoists are willing to reduce the number of states to eight to ten. The division of powers between the centre and states has been broadly accepted. But the real battle is over the notion of agraadhikar, prior rights. Maoists and ethnic groups have demanded that only a person from the dominant ethnic community in a province should be entitled to become the chief minister of that region for two terms as compensation for historic discrimination. The NC has rejected this, claiming it is a ‘violation of individual rights and democratic principles'. There is also dispute over the number of states in the plains, with Madhesi parties demanding a single province in the Tarai.

Despite the possible convergence on some of the constitutional issues, Mr. Karna emphasised that the first task was the integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants. “Till the Maoists don't move on the peace process, other parties will not co-operate on the constitution writing. Why should others reveal their cards and show flexibility till one party insists on having a private army?” The Maoist leader Mr. Devkota said they were committed to the peace process but this was linked to constitution writing and power sharing.

Keywords: Nepal politics

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