KATHMANDU, Nepal – They have a constitution now in Nepal. Finally. It's a real constitution, too, not like the interim agreement that kept things stumbling along for the last eight years, since soon after a peace deal ended a war with Maoist rebels.
You'd think Nepalis would be happy about this, after so many years of political deadlock and ever-lowering expectations and a churn of prime ministers who rarely survived a full year in office. But you'd be wrong.
"This is terrible," said Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of the Annapurna Post, a leading Kathmandu newspaper. "Two constituent assemblies finally create a constitution and it creates more problems than we ever had before."
The most pressing problem: The constitution has widened the divide between the people of Nepal's hot, flat farming country and the higher-caste hill people of Kathmandu, the capital. The main political parties in the plains, home to about half the population, boycotted the Sept. 16 vote on the constitution, saying it gerrymanders districts to ensure the long-neglected plains people don't get any significant power. India has sided with plains residents, who live near the border and in many cases trace their ethnic roots back to India. Furious that its advice on the constitution had been ignored, New Delhi effectively cut off fuel supplies to Nepal, creating lines at gas stations that seem to stretch into eternity.
The new ruling alliance, meanwhile, which draws from parties ranging from monarchists to Maoists, is already at risk of collapse, while politicians are arguing about the new federal system of governance, with power shared between national authorities and seven new provinces.
"They never even decided what federalism meant for Nepal," said Ghimire, who has been watching the country's political scene for decades. "At the moment, the only thing that can be said with certainty is that things are going to be more uncertain."
Political parties from the plains have long demanded that the new constitution create provinces that would magnify their electoral power. But instead of drawing provincial boundaries along ethnic lines — as India had been suggesting — the new boundaries are drawn along geographic and economic lines. That, the plains parties say, effectively denies them influence in the capital.
"This has been done intentionally to disempower the Madhesis," as many of the plains people are called, said Dipendra Jha, a lawyer and activist. Protests shook the region leading up to the vote on the constitution, leaving dozens of people dead, and protesters are now blocking some border crossings to India.
Jha worries that anger in the plains is growing deeper but is also less organized, shifting away from political parties and giving more power to the most radical leaders.
"Constitutional amendments are the only way to address this," Jha said. "I don't see any other options."
His immediate hope is that the Dashain festival, a major holiday that began Tuesday and sends millions of people back to their ancestral villages, often for a week or more, will give the country some breathing space.
"It'll calm tempers, I hope," he said. "But when it ends, we'll be in the same place, and then it could be even worse."
For ordinary people, the last few weeks have been misery. While India denies shutting off fuel supplies to landlocked Nepal, it has done nothing to disperse the Madhesi protesters who stop trade by occupying no-mans-land areas at major border crossings. Nepal, for its part, cannot disperse the protesters without inviting a furious backlash.
"In Nepal there seems to be one problem after another," said Surendra Singh, a taxi driver waiting in line at a Kathmandu gas station. He has had little work for the past three weeks and is living off of his savings. "Earning a living has become more difficult every year. I am thinking of going to Qatar to look for work. It would be hard leaving my family behind, but I see no other alternative."
To the people of the plains, though, the trouble may bring benefits.
"The protests have made life difficult for the people of Kathmandu for three weeks, but the people of the (plains) have always had difficult lives. The constitution protests may or may not resolve the problems of the people in the south, but it is the first time that these are being discussed on a national level," said Narayan Sah, an office worker who grew up in the plains but now lives in Kathmandu.
"Ultimately there will be a resolution and things will get back to normal," said Sah, who was scanning headlines at a Kathmandu newsstand. "I don't think the protests have divided the country between ethnic groups. It will only make the country stronger."
The new government, for its part, is already acknowledging that constitutional amendments — presumably to redraw some provincial boundaries — are being discussed.
Speaking about the Madhesis, newly elected Prime Minister Khadga Prashad Oli told parliament Thursday that "all their genuine demands can be addressed by amending the constitution. I therefore appeal to them to call off protests and sit for talks."
But political agreements can take a long time in Nepal, where political corruption and incompetence are deeply ingrained. The interim constitution, which came into effect in 2007, just after the civil war ended, was supposed to lead to a permanent constitution by 2010. Instead, Nepal had to wait another five years.
Sullivan reported from New Delhi.
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