Since 1990, Nepal has had 26 governments. Think about that for a minute. 26 different governments in 27 years. It is no great wonder why the people of Nepal have grown exhaustively accustomed to great instability that is stifling to economic development, infrastructure investment and any coherent strategy for moving forward. It is through that lens that we look at the current elections that usher in the formation of a new and hopefully stable government built on the principles of federalism to create the new Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal.
noun fed·er·al·ism \ ˈfe-d(ə-)rə-ˌli-zəm \ the distribution of power in an organization (such as a government) between a central authority and the constituent
The people of Nepal will go to the polls on December 7 in the second round of voting for the first parliamentary elections since 1999. The first round of voting occurred on November 26 with the two rounds of voting occurring in different geographic regions around the country. The goal of these elections is ambitious. In 2015, government officials passed a new constitution declaring the country a federal state with 3 levels of government: Federal, Provincial and Local. Additionally, Nepal has been divided into 7 provinces (districts) based on geography and population. By introducing new provinces and a tiered form of government based on federalist principles, provincial governments will gain a new degree of autonomy to develop both economically and socially. Much like in the United States of America, Provincial Assemblies (PA) will have authority over things like establishing local governments, establishing and maintain schools, and providing for public safety while the Federal Parliament (FP) maintains national powers such as establishing foreign policy, coining money and the creation and maintenance of armed forces. The PA and FP will share powers such as the ability to raise taxes, charter banks and build and maintain roads. This system of governance with degrees of autonomy within a nation state is common to much of the developed world but presents a tidal shift for the tiny Himalayan country, and it remains to be seen how it will impact its people and the newly established bureaucratic institutions created to serve them.
One very interesting and potentially divisive issue remains how to ensure fair and equal representation within the new construct. Traditionally Nepal has centralized all power, wealth and institutions in its historic seat of power – the Kathmandu valley. Monarchs resided there and now all higher education, government institutions and most businesses are located within that small region. Because of this, the majority of infrastructure spending and economic development has been limited there leaving the rest of the country vastly underserved. The adoption of a federalist government structure is meant to address this centralization. There are other reasons for disproportionate allocation of political influence and economic distribution, however, including geographic barriers and ethnic divides, and in order to move the country forward as a whole it will be vital to alter this power imbalance. The election committee has sought to address these concerns by designating that one third of all seats across all levels of government be reserved for women and the adoption of a Proportional Representation system aims to ensure the representation of minorities including historically underserved Dalits and Janajati.
I am encouraged by the approach and the ambition of Nepal’s vision for a better future for its people. I am also wary. I have spoken to citizens sharing the same mix of hope and apprehension. Theirs is a concern born of generations of experience, and I think that it is important to give their concerns voice. ParticipAid continues to work in a rural area of northern Nepal, far from the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu. Members in our community have long-held, and not unfounded, reservations when it comes to governance and its impacts. For too long they have experienced cronyism and corruption, wealth inequities and a lack of investment in basic infrastructure. What happens now with provinces able to set their own tax policies? Will the public’s disillusionment and distrust of bureaucratic institutions fade with this seemingly more representative governmental system? Will these newly elected representatives have the capability, capacity and resources to execute effective governance? Can a country continually struggling economically afford to pay the surge in administrative costs associated with implementing a federalist government?
In the end these questions do matter, but for now these elections and the promise of a stable and representative government signify a hopeful step toward a more prosperous, egalitarian secure society. Votes will be counted in the days following December 7, and results are expected mid-December. We wish everyone a safe and secure time at the polls and eagerly await this new and exciting chapter for the people of Nepal.