Will terrible earthquake bring a fuller democracy in Nepal?

Amid the rubble and homeless in Nepal, the country's political parties appear poised to finally enact a constitution. Has adversity brought opportunity?

Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters
A boy walks along the debris of a collapsed temple in Kathmandu on Monday. He's carrying a trident, which is locally called "Trishul", a weapon used by Lord Shiva also known as the god of destruction.

Quake-ravaged Nepal woke to some rare good news Tuesday as long-warring political parties sealed a major deal that could lead to the country's first modern constitution.

Both the ruling party and the opposition Maoists have been at bitter odds for years. But the severity of the earthquake and some 300 aftershocks have provided the impetus for reform in a way not seen in at least seven years, analysts say.

Adversity has provided an opportunity it appears. 

Four major parties in the Constituent Assembly broke the deadlock Monday. They agreed to a new eight-province federal structure and a bicameral parliament where the prime minister is the executive and the president plays a more ceremonial role. 

The deal reached on Monday must first be formalized in the Constituent Assembly before being open to a public comment period. A final vote on the draft – which could make it Nepal’s first post-monarchy constitution – is expected to come in July.

“The quake left major political parties with no choice but to come together,” says Guna Raj Luintel, editor of Nagarik, a daily newspaper. “They needed to agree on the constitution to win the confidence of the international community." He adds that the parties also needed to signal that they could work together toward reform and reconstruction.

Boost in morale

The deal is a much-needed psychological boost after nearly 9,000 Nepalis died in heavy quakes that struck April 25 and May 12. Millions remain homeless, especially in rural areas. Many are fearful of the monsoon rains expected later this month that usually last all summer.

Politics in Nepal have been stymied for seven years. After two elections and six government changes, the country's political parties have yet to agree to a constitution to cap a drawn-out peace process with former Maoist rebels. For 10 years, until 2006, the rebels fought an insurgency that drained the nation’s budget and cost more than 17,000 lives.

In agreeing to the deal on Monday, the Maoists ditched their alliance with some 30 smaller parties. Their move suggested an awareness that the nation now faces bigger problems.  

The four major parties that came together – the ruling Nepali Congress, the Maoists, the Communists, and the Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum – collectively command more than two-thirds majority in the assembly.

Mr. Luintel says the message from the four parties is, “’Trust us. We can work together. We can deliver.’”

The opposition, he points out, does not have the popular support to hinder the deal.

Cautious optimism

“Given the calamity,” Luintel says, “they will know better than to obstruct the constitution-drafting process." Given that Nepal is already suffering from the quake, he adds that any who attempts to block the deal be seen as "insensitive tormentors."

 "I think the opposing parties also have no choice but to play a constructive role,” he says. 

Ordinary citizens have welcomed the new federal idea, but cautiously.

“This is definitely good news. Finally, things seem to be moving ahead,” said Jagat Das Shrestha of Tahachal, a local Kathmandu neighborhood, who lost a brother in the April 25 quake. “But we will have to wait and see whether the agreements result in a constitution, or our leaders find new points to disagree on in the coming days. We have had so much bad experience that it’s better to be cautiously optimistic,” he said.

Final damage estimates are due in mid-June ahead of an international donors’ conference to be held in Kathmandu June 25. The National Planning Commission says the country lost nearly $10 billion in infrastructure and some 500,000 structures. 

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