Originally Published 2011-12-05 00:00:00 Published on Dec 05, 2011
Political parties in Nepal should preserve at any cost the newly-found consensus. All other contentious issues must be handed over to an independent body to deal with. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Disappearances Commission should be formed without delay to address the issues of grievances.
Nepal: Will the last CA extension deliver the goods?
The term of the Constituent Assembly (CA) in Nepal has been extended by six months for the fourth time on November 29. The tenure of the CA, which was elected in April 2008, was extended once for a year in 2009 and then twice for three months each last year by amendments to the Interim Constitution.

Unlike in the past, the extension efforts this time was rather peaceful. Thanks to the Supreme Court ruling, the political parties quietly put a six-point agreement in place promising to draft a new Constitution within six months while offering a vague understanding to form a national consensus government without a fixed timetable.

After a heated legal battle for over two months, the Supreme Court last week put a cap on the term of the CA. The apex court issued a bold directive that gave the government and the CA a "last chance" to extend the assembly's term by a maximum of six months. It held that the CA would be automatically dissolved after the end of the last extension even if the parties fail to draft a Constitution within the extended period. In case the CA fails to draft the Constitution within the extended deadline, the court said it should either go for a referendum to sort out the remaining differences as provisioned in Article 157 of the Constitution or opt for a fresh mandate as per Article 63. While Article 63 has procedures to hold CA elections, Article 157 states that in the course of drafting the Constitution, if a two-thirds majority of the CA deems it necessary, the assembly could "go for referendum to take a decision on any matter of national importance."

The stage for the extension was set on November 1, five years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Nepal, when the political parties finally made a breakthrough by signing the historic seven-point agreement in Kathmandu. The agreement decided on the contentious issues of army integration, constitution drafting and power sharing despite strong resistance from the Maoist hardliners. The agreement reaffirms pre-CPA commitments made by the parties on November 22, 2005. It pushes forward the peace process at a time when disillusionment was catching among the former combatants and deadlocks were driving national patience to a precarious low. On the issue of the integration of the 19,602 Maoist combatants, the parties agreed that up to 6,500 can be integrated into the Nepal Army. Those who remain in the cantonments will be able to choose to be rehabilitated into civilian life, either through a voluntary retirement programme or through a rehabilitation package. The voluntary retirement payouts would vary between Nepali Rs 500,000 to Rs 800,000 ($6,200 - $10,000) depending on the seniority within the People's Liberation Army. Accordingly, the categorisation process of the Maoist combatants was completed in all the seven cantonments this week.

Meanwhile, the government has also put in place an eight-member State Restructuring Commission, which would recommend to the government the federal restructuring. The members drawn are senior civil society leaders, politicians and experts like Malla K Sundar, who is a rights activist and was nominated as Member of Parliament by Maoists in the reinstated House of Representatives. An advocate of ethnic-based federalism, he published two books on federalism -- Sanghiya Nepal and Newaa Swayatta Rajya. Another name in the Commission is Stella Tamang, a women activist from indigenous community. She is the founder chairperson of the Women Federation of Indigenous Communities and the chairperson of Nepal Tamang Mahila Ghedung. Likewise, Dr. Ramesh Dhungel, a professor at the Tribhuwan University and Researcher at the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS) is another member. He believes in a mixed federal model based on ethnic and civic nationalism. The Commission is expected to submit its report to the CA within two months from the date of its first meeting.

The political parties should now keep this momentum alive for the sake of peace and stability. The Baburam Bhattarai government should immediately put in place a roadmap for Constitution writing while pushing for the conclusion of the integration process, keeping the negotiations with all other major parties going. Much credit for the renewed dialogues has already been given to Prime Minister Bhattarai who has been able to generate some consensus on pushing the peace process ahead. With a major breakthrough in determining the number of the Maoist combatants for integration, the most contentious issue of the peace process, an initial draft of the Constitution, could be expected within six months. For this to succeed, Maoist chairman Prachanda has to continue his support to Bhattarai even at the cost of sidelining the hardliners in his party, who have openly condemned the seven-point deal. Completion of the peace process is in the larger interest of the very people the Maoists fought for - the poor, marginalised and excluded communities.

And this is clearly the last chance, for much time, energy and money has been spent over futile and petty issues. Keeping the CA alive has itself cost the State a huge amount. According to a recent report published by Media Initiative for Rights, Equity and Social Transformation (MIREST Nepal), the State has spent Nrs 13.19 billion from 2007 to 2011 for supporting the Constituent Assembly election and the Constitution drafting process. At the current rate of exchange, this amount equals 155.5 million US dollars. That's quite a lot of money for a Constitution that does not exist.

Nepal cannot afford any more delay. Its economy is crippling with some larger businesses scaling down and development projects being affected. Nepal's economy is sustained by remittances only. It is the second most corrupt country in South Asia, according to Transparency International's latest report, and has tremendous law and order problem. Political stability is thus of paramount importance. Insecurity, particularly in the plains, known as the Terai region, has escalated with the emergence of numerous armed groups taking advantage of a security vacuum. Poorest regions have been hit hard by bandhs and disruptions caused by party workers. The newly-found consensus must be preserved at any cost and all other contentious issues must be handed over to an independent body to deal with. For instance, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Disappearances Commission should be formed without delay to address the issues of grievances and right abuses during the decade-long war.

However, challenges remain. The UCPN (Maoist) has not begun the process for the return of the seized property, a clause that the party agreed in the seven-point deal. Likewise, the Maoists must dismantle the semi-military structure of the Young Communist League (YCL), something which should have been done four years ago. There is an increasing suspicion among the other political parties that those combatants now leaving the cantonments may join the YCL, thereby strengthening its foothold. Altogether 2,795 combatants opted out of the categorisation process of last week.

Lastly, parties now have to work on forming a national consensus government. Such a multi-party government would replace the current majority government comprising the Maoists and the Madheshi Front. Prime Minister Bhattarai has claimed that such a government would be in place by mid December. Only a consensus government can truly uphold the spirit of the seven-point deal and turn the commitments into real actions. The Nepali Congress should now come on board with most of its demands, especially on the return of the seized property, now adequately addressed by the new agreement. The political class of Nepal should ensure that this is the last extension.

(Akanshya Shah is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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