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The National Democratic Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government.

Ram Guragain, NDI senior political advisor for Nepal

Nepal has survived considerable political turmoil in recent years, including an armed conflict, failure of the Constituent Assembly to deliver a new constitution and the inability of leadership to form a sustainable government. Although the country has managed the political upheaval, recent events threaten the country’s chances for continued democratic change.

We sat down with Ram Guragain, NDI senior political advisor for Nepal and a native Nepali, to discuss next steps for the country and how NDI is working with parties, elected officials and citizens in this turbulent time.

What are some of the biggest issues facing Nepal?

The major issues relate to the cost of living, because at least there is peace. Most are concerned about the cost of food, fuel prices and gasoline shortages.

There is also a very serious political dispute related to the constitution drafting process. Nepal right now is still using an interim constitution – the Constituent Assembly was tasked with drafting a new one and spent four years working on it. When it could not reach an agreement by a May 2012 deadline, the assembly was dissolved and the acting prime minister called for elections for a new constituent assembly, scheduled for Nov. 22.

Those elections are currently on hold, as political parties debate whether they should be for a five-year parliament that would be tasked with writing a new constitution in addition to legislating, or if elections should be held to elect a constituent assembly tasked only with writing a constitution – without legislative authority.

Currently, the parties are holding talks but are refusing to talk with the prime minister. They are calling on the prime minister to resign, insisting he has neither the legal authority to dissolve the Constituent Assembly nor to call for new elections.  Twenty-six of the country’s 32 political parties have said they will boycott elections if they are called by the current prime minister. Thus the biggest issues are political uncertainty and a lack of elected representatives at all levels.

What issues are making it so hard to draft a constitution?

The last constituent assembly solved about 90 percent of its differences, but there are still some major issues to resolve. One is what form the new government will take. Nepal is a small country with more than 60 ethnicities and over 105 languages. The question of how to manage these ethnicities has become a big issue, as well as the question of how many federal states will be created. Parties have not been able to agree pm a federalism based on single or multiple identities. Many people are against the single identity-based federal system.

Each ethnic group would like to have a state in its own name, so the residents can govern themselves as part of a federal system. There is also a group called Dalits, treated as ‘untouchable’ people, spread throughout the country, whose rights must be dealt with in the next constitution, even though they are not geographically concentrated enough to warrant their own single state.

All of these minority groups were represented in the last Constituent Assembly and they will need to be represented in whatever body is next elected.

How is NDI working with people and parties during this turbulent time?

We have focused on political party building activities at the local level. Recently, for example, the Institute invited two representatives from each of eight political parties and provided them with training on how to identify potential supporters, how to communicate the party’s platform and message, how to get supporters to the polls on election day, things like that. They then invited their parties’ active members – 25 or 30 from their chosen districts – and they gave those members the same training in turn.  The parties understood the importance of recruiting likely voters in time for the next election.

The Institute is also working in close collaboration with the parliament secretariat and members of parliamentary committees to strengthen legislative work and constituent services. 

We did a lot of work with women leaders and parliamentarians, too. Although women were well represented in the Constituent Assembly, they still make up less than 20 percent of the leadership of most major parties. Women are struggling to reach 33 percent representation in the parties themselves – from the central committee to village committees. Also in the government, army, police and civil service – women are underrepresented.

My favorite memory working for NDI for the last 13 years is from the women’s political participation program. We trained inexperienced women elected at the grassroots level, mainly as the members of the Village Development Councils (VDCs), on their roles and responsibilities of being an elected representative.  In the beginning they were frustrated as they did not know their duties and functions as elected representatives.  After our training, they became ready to contest the elections for higher positions. The Institute trained over 1,700 local women leaders from various political parties in the Tarai region.

Another program I want to mention is when, for the first time, 197 women parliamentarians were elected to the Constituent Assembly from different regions, making up almost one-third of the legislative body.  Out of those 197, the Institute provided more than 100 with a rigorous training for three weeks from 7 to 11:30 a.m. every day before they went to their parliamentary meetings. They continuously attended and they always expressed satisfaction that the Institute did something for them. Before this, no one, not even their parties, had given them any training on how to conduct parliamentary business or the Constituent Assembly processes, such as how to research legislative topics, what questions to ask for better oversight, how to communicate with constituents, etc. Now, many women politicians have become central leaders, elected to party executive committees, and many women have become actively involved in local politics.

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Published Sept. 10, 2012