Former French ambassador bravely says “don’t copy us”

Very interesting piece in the Nepali Times┬áby a former French ambassador: he says to the Maoists: don’t copy the French, the presidential system wont work here, it’s just be┬ádivisive.

Dangers of cohabitation

Now that the peace process is almost complete, the Constituent Assembly is about to start carrying out its main task of writing the new constitution.

Reading the Nepali press every day it appears that two main issues remain to be sorted out among the political parties in this difficult exercise which will affect the country for several decades to come: the form of governance and the nature of federalism.

Any constitution of any country must be adapted to suit the prevailing conditions. At the moment when they sit down to discuss the draft constitution, the members of the Constituent Assembly should keep in mind that Nepal is the oldest nation state in South Asia, and made up of more than 100 ethnic groups which have succeeded in living together throughout the long history of independence that the Nepali people are legitimately proud of. It is a model for many countries torn apart by ethno-separatism, but this model is fragile. The national unity that served Nepal so well, and took so long to build, can be destroyed in a moment.

The parties are trying to decide whether to go for a presidential system or keep the parliamentary one. The compromise is the so-called ‘French model’ in which the president is directly elected by the people and holds the bulk of executive power, appointing and dismissing the prime minister at will, and dissolving parliament if he wants. This is why the president in France is often referred to as a ‘republican monarch’.

The presidential form of governance has its pros and cons, but I am not sure it suits Nepal. In France a candidate for the presidency is simply French. In Nepal, any candidate besides being a Nepali citizen, will also belong to a particular ethnic group and a particular caste. The danger then is that electoral competition will oppose not only two or more men but also, willingly or unwillingly, two or more ethnic groups or castes.

Victory will then be the victory of one group and defeat for the others. If one wants to protect the unity of Nepal, the parliamentary form of governance seems to me a much better option. This is the system which was in force during the period of the constitutional monarchy from 1991 and it worked reasonably well. The only difference, now that the monarchy is abolished, lies in the election of a ceremonial president by parliament who embodies the unity of Nepal and the Nepalis in all their diversity.

The second point of contention is federalism, which in itself is a positive form of governance. It gives the people the possibility of finding local and better adapted solutions to the problems they are confronted with. It takes the administration much closer to the citizens when the central government is too often far away and tends to be oblivious of their daily needs.

Despite these benefits, however, there are difficulties. To be effective, federal states or provinces have to recruit good and skilled staff capable of running the day-to-day administration. Also defining federal units by ethnicity is very risky for Nepal, and can lead to splitting the country. A few ethnicities may be satisfied but many others, too small to get their own province, will resent the new administrative divisions as not responding to their needs and aspirations. The best form of federalism for Nepal should be based on economic criteria by regrouping regions where different ethnic groups could work together to lift their populations out of poverty in cooperation with neighbouring regions.

Michel Lummaux served as the ambassador of France to Nepal between 1996 and 2000. The views in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the French government’s position.

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