Big earthquakes happen in Nepal roughly once a century. More than 7,000 died in the last one in January 1934, a life-defining caesura for those old enough to remember it and many would have been aware of the country’s vulnerability to another.
As the death toll continues to rise following the recent quake, co-ordinating relief efforts is now the priority. As well as the geographical and infrastructure issues, Nepal’s ability to co-ordinate efforts unfortunately look likely to be hampered by unresolved political issues and a lack of strong leadership.
It might be tempting to think that delays over writing Nepal’s long-awaited constitution don’t matter, that life can go on as normal without political resolution (and many Nepalis, bored with the games of political musical chairs in Kathmandu, had begun to think just that). But the earthquake shows just how vital it is to have political institutions that work, both at the centre and, even more importantly, at the local level.
Nepal is still dealing with the aftermath of a ten-year civil war which ended in 2006, the roots of which go back to the 1950s. Having had its first general election in 1959, Nepal has struggled for years with the remnants of a monarchical, authoritarian system. In December 1960 the then king, Mahendra arrested the then prime minister, BP Koirala, dismissed parliament, and inaugurated the partyless Panchayat system that would rule Nepal for 30 years. A pattern was set of royal resistance to a constituent assembly, coups backed by the army, followed by armed resistance.
Panchayat rule was milder than the preceding Ranas – it was more nationalist and developmentalist and spoke the language of democracy and equality. But it was ruthless with opponents, banned political parties, and, in practice, institutionalised ethnic and social exclusion.
Nepal has an extremely complex ethnic, caste, and regional mix – its very complexity preventing polarisation, as seen in Sri Lanka. Between 1960 and 1990, educational levels rose, an educated middle class emerged and, as Nepal opened up more to the world, its people were exposed to ideas about democracy – especially in neighbouring India.
Multi-party democracy, with a constitutional monarch, was established following the People’s Movement revolution of 1990. Two big parties, the Nepali Congress and the UML (Nepal Communist Party-Unified Marxist-Leninist), dominated electoral politics. But, in 1996, left-wing Maoists launched what they called their People’s War that engulfed Nepal in a decade of civil war lasting until 2006.
Even when hostilities ceased and parliament was reinstated, the old game of sharing the spoils in a series of coalition governments continued. The hard work of thrashing out what a new reconstructed federal state would look like was repeatedly put off to the last minute.
The election for Nepal’s first Constituent Assembly in 2008 gave victory, but no overall majority, to the Maoists. They abolished the monarchy, removed the privileged status of Hinduism, and promised federalism. This left three big parties – Congress, UML, and the Maoists – who divided the spoils between them.
The Constituent Assembly came to an ignominious end in 2012 without agreeing a constitution. It came unstuck on the key issue of the role (symbolic, substantive, or nil) of ethnicity in the new federal dispensation.
New elections in 2013 saw the Maoists relegated to third place. The new Congress and UML government led by Congress’s Sushil Koirala has, however, failed to end the saga of Nepalese constitutional politics. This time the failure to deliver a constitution was not due to deep differences in viewpoint, but to low political calculation.
Earlier this year, the prime minister himself torpedoed any chance of compromise and the timely declaration of a new constitution, as success would have meant handing over his job to his UML counterpart, as part of a coalition deal.
With the constitution remaining undeclared, he is able to continue in office and the earthquake no doubt means that the changeover of prime minister will be put off for a while longer. The fact that Koirala is 75 and and physically weak does not help in producing a vigorous response to the crisis. The lack of strong, co-ordinated leadership at the top is evident.
Apart from coming up with a constitution, there is a great deal of unfinished business from ten years of civil war, which will inevitably be put off still further by this natural disaster. One important example is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which is supposed to look at serious human rights abuses that occurred during the war. Another, which really should have been dealt with by now, is local elections.
The lack of local elections is a major failing of the political class: since 2008 it has been so focused on power, position, and money at the centre that people’s need for local elected representatives was forgotten. As a consequence, in most of the country, there are today no political leaders with sufficient legitimacy to lead and coordinate relief efforts at the village and district levels – and it is in the mountain villages north of Kathmandu where the most affected victims of the earthquake are, in many cases, still awaiting help.