January 03, 2012
Facing a court-imposed deadline to wrap its work up by the coming May, Nepal's Constituent Assembly – tasked with drafting the country's new constitution – is now under pressure to achieve within months the goal that has eluded it for years. The CA was elected in 2008 for a two-year term. With political parties unable to forge a consensus and overcome disagreements on a number of issues, however, the deadline was extended for another two years. The parliamentary body extended its term yet again in August, and once more on November 29th for a further six months.
That should be the last such extension, according to a Supreme Court decision handed down on November 25th. The judges even refused to review a petition filed by the parliament and government asking it to reconsider an earlier verdict along the same lines.
But with time running out, the difficulties facing the CA have been exacerbated by an internal conflict within Nepal's largest political party, Unified CPN Maoist. A faction led by senior vice-chairman Mohan Baidhya has broken with party head Pushpa Kamal Dahal (also known as Prachanda) and prime minister Baburam Bhattrai, dubbing them "rightists".
"The public has given us a mandate through the Constitutional Assembly election to draft a new, progressive and peoples' constitution in which rights of the proletarian, indigenous, marginalized people are guaranteed," said Dev Gurung, a former minister of law and a key representative of Baidhya's camp. "It is meaningless to go forward ignoring issues related to those people."
The faction is demanding that the constitution incorporate compulsory armed training for youth, voting rights at the age of 16, and sweeping acquisitions under "progressive land reform".
A subcommittee including senior-level leaders of different parties had earlier succeeded in striking deals on the most contentious issues, including the electoral system, governance, and land reform. But disagreements resurfaced as a result of the Maoist split.
Constitutional experts say Nepal cannot afford to have the process derailed at this juncture. Welcoming the court ruling, Nepal Bar Association chairman Prem Bahadur Khakda called on political leaders to demonstrate their efficiency and carry out their obligation to present a new constitution to the public.
"The government and CA Members should focus on drafting the constitution rather than disputing with the judiciary," he told Khabar South Asia. "The CA can't be forever. It should die after five months."
That is sufficient time to get the job done if the CA and government make a sincere effort, he added.
Constitutional law expert Vimarjun Acharya agrees, but is skeptical about the intentions of those involved.
"The CA does not seem sincere in its work," he said. "It is attempting to demoralize the judiciary so the Court won't warn the CA and the government about their unconstitutional activities, including [extensions of the] CA term."
The chairman of the Constitutional Committee, Nilambar Acharya, acknowledges that political disturbances are a cause for worry. He added, though, that the CA is capable of meeting its deadline if the political situation can be smoothed out.
"The verdict of the court needs to be honored," Acharya said. "Prachanda should lead and control own party properly, otherwise future of constitution is uncertain."
Since 2007, Nepal has been governed under an interim constitution. At least two-thirds of CA members must endorse a new constitution in order for it to be adopted.