Nepal constitution ends 8-year deadlock, but not pessimism

Kathmandu: They have a constitution now in Nepal. Finally. It’s a real constitution, too, not like the interim agreement that kept things stumbling along for the last eight years, since soon after a peace deal ended a war with Maoist rebels.

Nepal constitution ends 8-year deadlock, but not pessimism

You’d think Nepalis would be happy about this, after so many years of political deadlock and ever-lowering expectations and a churn of prime ministers who rarely survived a full year in office. But you’d be wrong.

The most pressing problem: The constitution has widened the divide between the people of Nepal’s hot, flat farming country and the higher-caste hill people of Kathmandu, the capital. The main political parties in the plains, home to about half the population, boycotted the September 16 vote on the constitution, saying it gerrymanders districts to ensure the long-neglected plains people don’t get any significant power.

India has sided with plains residents, who live near the border and in many cases trace their ethnic roots back to India.

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The new ruling alliance, meanwhile, which draws from parties ranging from monarchists to Maoists, is already at risk of collapse, while politicians are arguing about the new federal system of governance, with power shared between national authorities and seven new provinces.

Political parties from the plains have long demanded that the new constitution create provinces that would magnify their electoral power. But instead of drawing provincial boundaries along ethnic lines as India had been suggesting the new boundaries are drawn along geographic and economic lines.

That, the plains parties say, effectively denies them influence in the capital.

“This has been done intentionally to disempower the Madhesis,” as many of the plains people are called, said Dipendra Jha, a lawyer and activist.

Protests shook the region leading up to the vote on the constitution, leaving dozens of people dead, and protesters are now blocking some border crossings to India.

Jha worries that anger in the plains is growing deeper but is also less organised, shifting away from political parties and giving more power to the most radical leaders.

“Constitutional amendments are the only way to address this,” Jha said. “I don’t see any other options.” His immediate hope is that the Dashain festival, a major holiday that began Tuesday and sends millions of people back to their ancestral villages, often for a week or more, will give the country some breathing space.