Towards institutionalizing self governance: How Nepal compares with other federations

This article was originally published by Akash Shrestha and Jai Venaik in The Himalayan Times on July 23, 2017.

Making a transition to a Federal Democratic Republic in the wake of the 21 st century comes with a challenge of how to go about choosing the right way to govern. Traditional centralised and controlled monarchies have seen a marked transition into a more devolved and decentralized approach of governance; simply put, the method of establishing a rule through a constitutional process which involves deliberating on the different methods to choose from.

One of the earliest examples of transition can be seen with the French Rebellion instituting the first French Republic followed by more examples at the end of the first world war. Four great empires in the world transitioned from centralised control of the respective monarchs to forms of democratic models. The second world war and the subsequent cold war eliminated some more from the list of possible methods. Federalism emerged as a tested method of self-rule and shared rule through power sharing amongst regions integrating together to form a unit; after all it is these singular units that come together to form a nation of people. The other promises that Federalism also offers is the best use of a rich diversity by bringing out the best practices and the management of this intrinsic diversity. Our country, Nepal, understood the need and the reality of this model.

Federalism, in the global world, has seen a wide variation of combinations of power-sharing between local, regional and the federal governments. Today, 25 countries follow federal principles constitutionally, and several others have adopted federal principles. These countries are spread across all continents on earth, and are unique and very different in their own respective ways. Nepal, with an almost-two- year-old constitution, compares differently with all of them. It would be noteworthy to look at some of these to begin understanding what we can learn from each and what should we as a country be cautious of.

With almost all countries, there are certain features that are exclusive only to Nepal. The significant two are an institutionalised legislative wing at the local level in the form of a unicameral house, and the total number of indirectly elected members (110 in the lower house and 59 in the upper house) exceeding directly elected (165 in the lower house) in the Federal Parliament.

One of our strongest allies and partners historically, India, is also a federal country. Given the historic, cultural, economic and societal ties, both the countries lay strong emphasis on social inclusion, secular values and a shared structure in terms of fundamental rights and duties, rights of the minority and guaranteeing its citizens equality and justice. Both are republics with representative parliamentary democracies and universal adult suffrage. One of the fundamental differences in the federal system is the difference in the management of legislative powers. India divides the power distribution into three different lists, while Nepal maintains five lists of legislative powers—three exclusive to federal, provincial and local governments respectively, and two concurrent among them. In both cases, the federal government reserves the residual power. Power sharing amongst all constituent entities in Nepal are equal whereas India has autonomous states and federal union territories.

Switzerland, unlike India and Nepal, is on the other end of the spectrum of federal models. As a Confederation, the communes and cantons (regional states) are tied together by a confederation government at the centre. Practice of Principle of Subsidiarity and direct democracy (instead of representative democracy) is another distinction between our models. The Swiss Executive branch consists of seven members who rotate as Presidents annually. Nepal rests the executive power in the hands of the Prime Minister assisted by his Cabinet Ministers. At policy level, distribution of power amongst the orders of government differs in Nepal and Switzerland in education, health, business regulation and a few others sectors. Notably, Switzerland fares high on most growth indicators, both social and economic, and thus there could be useful lessons that we could draw from them.

The world superpower, the United States of America is the first country to adopt the Federalist approach to democracy. Composed of 50 states, a federal district and five major territories, the United States of America has the largest volume of literature and experience to offer on the Federalism features. States in the US have their own constitutions with an independent executive in the Presidential Republic format. There are significant differences in how powers are distributed to the federal and regional states as well as the composition and method of electing members to the upper and lower houses of Congress (Parliament). It promotes competition and choice and guarantees fundamental rights in the first ten amendments collectively known as the Bill of Rights.

The huge diversity in the characteristic features of federalism with an array of global case studies makes it imperative to minutely study best practices, and draw lessons from them to tackle inefficiencies or failures. Nepal has been under crossfire of reformation amidst a civil war, an extended transition phase, and a devastating earthquake. It necessitates us all to be all the more vigilant and adaptive to see through a peaceful transition into a functioning democracy for a free and prosperous Nepal.