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Asia

Will Nepal's new constitution bring political stability?

After years of political infighting, Nepal has adopted a constitution creating a federal state. But for it to become a success the nation must also tackle issues affecting women and minorities, George Varughese tells DW.

Following years of political deadlock and violent protests, Nepal's parliament approved a new national constitution on September 16 that divides the country into seven federal states, each with three levels of government: federal, provincial and local. The Himalayan nation's first complete political framework since the monarchy was abolished in 2008 is expected to come into force on September 20 when the final text is proclaimed.

The country's first constitution written by elected representatives ensures secularism, granting citizens the right to practice any religion. Some of the provisions feature a president with a ceremonial role who will be elected by parliament for a five-year term and a ministerial council elected by the people that will have executive duties.

The long-delayed charter was pushed through by the country's three major political parties. But smaller opposition parties as well as ethnic and religious groups - especially in Nepal's southern plain regions - have rejected the document amid concerns over how state borders should be defined. They even announced a nationwide general strike for Sunday, followed by protests where they will burn copies of the new charter, thus potentially setting the stage for a prolonged conflict.

In a DW interview, George Varughese, Nepal country representative for The Asia Foundation and senior visiting scholar and professor at the University of Wyoming, warns that unless the country's leaders agree to also address the needs of Nepal's women, minorities and historically marginalized ethno-linguistic groups, the new charter won't succeed in bringing political stability to the Himalayan nation.

DW: Nepal has finally adopted a new constitution. How significant is this step?

George Varughese: I think it's a very significant step because it signifies progress in a major process that has been going on for many years. Nepal has been trying to come up with a constitution for seven years that reflects the concerns that, for example, the insurgency and the Maoist party had, as well as legitimate issues related to marginalization and representation.

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Varughese: The recent earthquake 'certainly broke the political deadlock' in Nepal

So from that point of view, both the political settlement surrounding the end of the insurgency and the comprehensive peace agreement are embodied in this new constitution.

What are the key features of the new constitution and how could it contribute to the creation of a modern democratic Nepal?

In terms of its letter and rhetoric, the new constitution embraces principles such as federalism, secularism, inclusiveness and republicanism. The charter also addresses key concerns of almost all political actors. From that point of view, it is a more modern constitution, which, in principle, aims to promote the participation of all Nepalis in governing the country.

However, there are specifics in the charter which are either regressive or have not been fully thrashed out. For example, it privileges men when it comes to conferring citizenship and further restricts the rights of women, including those granted by previous constitutions.

It also lacks specifics in terms of local elections and federal demarcation. These are very critical issues that will resurface once the constitution is promulgated. And we can only hope that critics will resort to peaceful means of dissent in both instances such as using the courts for remedies.

What led a majority of politicians to set aside their differences and vote for this constitution?

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake - which two months earlier killed nearly 8,900 people and destroyed around half a million homes - certainly broke the political deadlock as it forced all politicians to come together to support relief efforts as well as manage the $4 billion recovery budget.

So the disaster really shocked the country's leaders. It made clear to the government as well as the main opposition that they have to deliver public goods and services as well as address the needs of the victims and survivors of the quake.

You said there are issues such as women's rights that have not been properly addressed in the new constitution. What is the reason for this?

If you read the specifics, the new constitution makes women second-class citizens. The main argument the three main political parties use is that they don't want men from neighboring countries such as India and China marrying Nepali women and causing unwanted population growth which they view as some sort of threat to national security.

But this can't stand. As the entire world moves towards equality amongst all people, Nepal continues to be a little regressive. But I suspect these provisions in the new charter will not hold once challenged in Nepal's Constitutional Court.

Smaller opposition parties rejected the new constitution in a joint statement, and announced a nationwide general strike on Sunday. Why do they object to the document?

25 members of the Constituent Assembly (CA) voted against the charter, and 66 abstained out of a total of 598 CA members. This means that 507 members supported the adoption of the bill. The 25 members who voted against the charter represent the Hindu extremist right wing that wants Nepal to become a Hindu nation and not a secular one.

Those who abstained, on the other hand, did not want to participate in a constitutional process which failed to give a voice to the Tharu and the Madhesi ethnic communities who predominantly reside in the country's southern plains bordering India. Given the amount of people this 66 CA members represent, their abstention means that a very significant block of Nepalis chose not to take part in the vote.

So it would be wise for the three main political parties to bring the abstaining members and their entire constituencies on board within days of the constitution being promulgated. Otherwise, the direct effect might be that the southern regions are shut down by these parties - something they have done quite successfully in the past. So although these 66 members make up for a minor block in parliament, they represent a major power block in terms of political stability, especially in Nepal's southern plains.

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'If you read the specifics, the new constitution makes women second-class citizens'

So given the differing views in Nepal's parliament, can the new constitution succeed in bringing along political stability?

I think Nepal will remain at a crossroads. I don't see how the new charter will bring stability in the near term as this will depend on getting the Tharu and the Madhesi politicians and their constituencies on board - probably with promises that the very first amendment of the constitution will address their demands.

These small parties demand either a separate province for these groups or recognition in the form of certain privileges awarded to them in the federal provinces or in the south.

For this reason, not only the parties in the ruling coalition but also countries such as India, the US and China should work hard to help reach an agreement that satisfies all stakeholders. Political stability will hinge on the ability of the 507 CA members to accommodate the 66 who abstained plus the 25 who chose to dissent.

Dr. George Varughese is Nepal country representative for The Asia Foundation and senior visiting scholar and professor at the Global & Area Studies Program of the University of Wyoming in the United States.