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Federations Magazine Article
Publication Year:
Nepal proclaims itself a ‘federal democratic republic’

n December 2007, Nepal ’s interim
legislature proclaimed itself “a
federal democratic republican
state.” Nepal had previously
amended its constitution to become federal
in March 2007, but this bill abolished
the monarchy as well. For this poor, landlocked
former kingdom in the mountains
and foothills of the Himalayas, such a
change would be a huge step. Nepal,
sandwiched between India and China,
has few natural resources beyond quartz,
hydroelectric power, timber and scenery.
After a 10-year civil war that drastically
hurt tourism and other industries, all
parties were eager for peace.
The monarchists, once one of three
main political forces in Nepal (along with
the Nepali Congress Party and the
Communists), have dwindled into a
minor political movement. The monarchy’s
popularity sank after the death of
King Birendra in a notorious palace massacre
in 2001. Af ter his brother
Gyanendra dissolved parliament and
took control to battle Maoist insurgents
in the civil war, human rights abuses by
the government turned many against the
The resolution in parliament that
abolished the monarchy was passed by
270 votes to 3, with 56 abstentions. The
vote must still be confirmed by a special
constituent assembly to be elected on
April 10 to draft a new constitution.
An unlikely choice
With an average Nepali earning less than
US$1 a day, the words “democratic” and
“republic” seem to an outsider to represent
goals that Nepalis might aspire to.
But why was “federal” added to them?
The answer lies in the diversity of Nepal,
in its geography, its many ethnic groups
and in a widespread mistrust of rule from
the capital, Kathmandu.
Just two years ago, Nepal emerged
from a 10-year civil war between the
Maoists and the Royal Nepal Army. With
a third of the population living below the
poverty line and less than half the population
able to read and write, the
insurgents found fertile ground when
their revolt began. After the loss of more
than 12,000 lives both sides were tired of
the war.
In April 2006, the king was forced to
recall parliament and step down from
Nepal proclaims itself a
‘federal democratic republic’
But whether it definitely becomes one is to be decided in April
By Ajaya Bhadra Khana l
Ajaya Bhadra Khanal is Acting Editor of The Himalayan Times, a daily newspaper published
from Kathmandu.
The end of the road for Nepal’s King Gyanendra came on Dec. 28, 2007. The legislature declared
the country a ‘federal democratic republic’ and stripped the king of all his remaining powers .
FEBRU ARY | MARCH 2008 Federations
AP Photo/ bin od joshi
power in what became known as “the
April Revolution.” This non-violent revolution
produced a partner that was
willing to negotiate with the Maoists to
end the war: a seven-party alliance of all
the centre and left parties in parliament.
However, the Maoists only agreed to
lay down their arms and enter the political
arena in return for membership in a
coalition government and an agreement
to abolish the monarchy. Both conditions
were met by the seven-party
alliance and the cease-fire has held.
At the request of both the alliance and
the Maoists, the UN sent a mission to
Nepal beginning in January 2007 to verify
the armaments of both sides and to assist
in the peace process.
The UN sent arms inspectors, mine
action experts, elections advisors and
civil affairs advisors to seven different
sites in Nepal.
Conflict rooted in
Nepal’s conflicts arose
out of geography, ethnicity
and class. The country
is made up of the mountains
in the north, the hill
country in the middle,
and the Madhesh plain in
the south. There are more
than 100 different ethnic
and caste groups in
Nepal, most of whom live
in the hill country and the
Most people in the
north and hill country
speak one of 13 Tibeto-Burman languages
while most Nepalis in the south
speak one of 6 languages related to Hindi.
In the Madhesh, conflicts over land
between Tibeto-Burman Nepalis and
Madheshis have continued to today. The
caste system prohibited access by lowercaste
Nepalis to many professions, and
minority ethnic groups were usually
treated the same as the lower castes.
The Maoists were one of the splinter
groups of the Communist Party of Nepal.
After they broke away, they began the
civil war, launching a “People’s War” in
the countryside in February 1996. In 1997,
while reviewing the first two years of the
war, the Maoists adopted a strategy of
creating national or ethnic and regional
fronts pushing for regional autonomy
and the right to self-determination of
oppressed nationalities. Eventually, federal
i sm, an unl ikely choice for
communists – who generally believe in
strong central governments – came to be
seen as a politically acceptable solution
to the Maoists.
Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai
said in an interview: “We did manage to
insert the provision (in the peace agreement)
that there would be an end to the
unitary state structure.”
“For us, the only alternative to a unitary
state structure was a federal state
In the early 1990s, a small group of
politicians in the Nepali Congress Party,
with their roots in academia, began to
express dissatisfaction with the centralized
state machinery, and began
promoting both regional structures and
federalism as antidotes.
By the middle of 2007, this party had
also converted to a federal system. In its
election manifesto, it said that the “will to
end conventional state structure and rule
and carry out a democratic restructuring
of the state” was one of the mandates of
the April Revolution.
The Nepali Congress Party has proposed
a three-tiered federal structure,
including the centre, regions and local
governments. They want the central and
regional parliaments to elect the head of
state. There would be a bicameral parliament
in Kathmandu and unicameral
parliaments in the regions.
During the civil war, federalism had
also made inroads with the Communist
Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) –
otherwise known as the Communist
Party (UML). It is the country’s largest
communist party aside from the Maoists.
This meant that all three large parties in
parliament agreed that Nepal ought to be
a federation.
Concept still fuzzy
Nepal has never had experience with a
federal system, and many Nepalis are
unfamiliar with the concept. Yet there
were grassroots organizations campaigning
for such a change in the political
In the Madhesh region, people continued
their protests long after the April
Revolution. In December 2006, part of
the Nepal Sadhbhawana Party organized
a campaign in Nepalganj in western
Nepal to demand a federal system. It
marked the beginning of confrontations
between the Madheshi people
and people from the hill
country who had settled in
the Madhesh. A similar incident
in eastern Nepal in
January 2007 triggered a
second period of unrest led
by the Madheshi People’s
Rights Forum.
“The idea of federalism
may not have been incorporated
in the constitution
were it not for the Madhesh
(protests). It is a bitter truth,”
said Nepal i Congres s
G e n e r a l S e c r e t a r y ,
Bimalendra Nidhi, who also
represents the Madhesh.
To help Nepalis gain
access to the political process that will
decide their future, Nepali and international
non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) have been hard at work. Care
Nepal helped an organization of the lowest
caste members in Nepal, the former
untouchables, to organize a national
workshop on the role of political parties
in ensuring representation of the lowest
caste members.
In November 2007, a radio program
on how to participate in the electoral process
was produced and broadcast to
remote rural areas by the Collective
Campaign for Peace, a grassroots netwo
r k , wi t h s u p p o r t f rom t h e
Washington-based Advocacy Project.
[Contin ued on page 32] FEBRU ARY |
MARCH 2008 Federations
Maoist supporters destroy a royal symbol on a “Welcome to Kathmandu”
sign in October 2007.
REUTERS/Gopa l Chit rakar
FEBRU ARY | MARCH 2008 Federations
Nepal [from pa ge 4]
In December, South Asia Partnership
Nepal called on all political parties to
implement a gender-friendly code of
conduct that would enhance women’s
representation in politics.
Unitary state abolished
After the victory of the April Revolution
in April 2006, the political parties drafted
an interim constitution for Nepal, which
was passed by the seven-party alliance in
December 2006 and approved by parliament
in January 2007 with a unanimous
vote of all 185 members present.
The document began with a bill of
rights and limited its restructuring of
government to a statement that Nepal
was “eliminating (the) existing form of
centralized and unitary structure” of the
The constitution went on to state that
the restructuring of the state would
address problems related to women,
Dalits, indigenous tribes, Madheshis,
oppressed and minority communities
and other disadvantaged groups “by
eliminating class, caste, language, sex,
culture, religion and regional discriminations.”
It also provided for a High Level
Commission to recommend restructuring
the state, but left the final decision on
restructur ing to the Constituent
So it was only after the protest movement
among the people in the Madhesh
in southern Nepal that the prime minister
adopted federalism as a central focus.
Other parties soon followed suit after a
national television address by the prime
Constitution changed
On March 9, 2007, the constitution was
amended to create a federal system while
carrying out inclusive, democratic and
progressive restructuring of the state. The
amendment also increased the number
of parliamentary seats for the Madhesh
so the 20 districts in the southern plains
would have 49 per cent of the electoral
An interim constitution approved by a
coalition government is one thing – a
final one adopted by democratically
elected representatives is quite another.
That is why the official confirmation
of a federal democratic republic will not
be made until after the April 10, 2008
elections for a Constituent Assembly to
write Nepal’s new constitution. The government
agreed to the new date in
December 2007 and agreed to elect 58
per cent of the 601-member assembly by
proportional representation and 42 per
cent by single-member constituencies.
The Maoists and the Madheshis had been
calling for 100 per cent proportional representation.
The agreement has been
long-awaited: the elections had already
been postponed twice before the April 10
date was agreed upon.
After the Madheshi protests, the basic
principle of federalism was accepted as a
political necessity. Yet the subject has
been on a back burner of Nepali politics,
and to implement a federal system, it
needs to move to the front burner.
From rebels to parliamentarians: Nepal’s Maoist rebel leader Prachanda (centre) and Maoist deputy leader Baburam Bhattarai (r.) sit next to
Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Communist Party (United Marxist-Leninist) in Nepal’s parliament last year. AP Photo/Bin od Joshi