Nepali leaders ask the right questions about federalism

Nearly 300 Nepali political leaders and others in Kathmandu came out to hear a presentation recently by Mr. George Anderson, President of the Forum of Federations and Ms. Sakuntala Kadirgamar from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Mr. Anderson gave a general introduction on federalism while Ms. Kadirgamar presented the differences between presidential and prime-ministerial systems of government.

Senior political leaders, Constituent Assembly (CA) members, and senior leaders of sister organizations of the Nepali Congress participated in the event. Former Prime Minister Mr. Sher Bahadur Deuba, Acting President Mr. Sushil Koirala, General Secretary Mr. Bimalendra Nidhi, Vice-President Mr. Ram Chandra Poudel, and various other senior leaders attended.

Questions ranged from fiscal in nature (Will a dual tax system create a double burden?) to the rights of marginalized people (How can the rights of the Dalits – the lowest caste in the Hindu caste system – be preserved in a federal system? Will a small number of constituent units provide rights and autonomy to so many marginalized groups?) to the consequences of structuring Nepal along ethnic lines (Will it lead to secession?).

Participants also had questions related to what they had witnessed in other federal systems (i.e., In India, the central government has the power to impose presidential rule and state government can be dissolved by the center. Is it a normal or healthy practice in federalism?)

Most of the questions revolved around Nepal’s specific situation concerning its cultural, linguistic, and geographical diversity, the fact of its communist ruling party (Does any communist country have a federal system?), and its geography, situated as it is between the two giant neighbours of China and India.

The speakers addressed some of these questions. Mr. Anderson reiterated his opinion that ethnic federalism would not be a suitable option to manage Nepal’s cultural and linguistic diversity. A division along ethnic lines would run the risk of leading to ethnicity-based conflicts as seen in some federal countries like Nigeria and Ethiopia. Similarly, a more powerful central government may be suitable for Nepal because of its immense socio-cultural diversity and unequal distribution of natural resources. He concluded, as before, by expressing his confidence that the resulting Nepali Constitution will reflect the needs and context of its country.

The Seminar on Federalism was organized by Mahendra Narayan Nidhi Memorial Academy and was held on September 16, 2008.

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