Asia

Will Nepal's earthquake bring historic change?

Nepalese lawmakers meet at the national parliament in Kathmandu Image copyright AFP
Image caption After years of political deadlock, Nepal's leaders have agreed on the structure of their new constitution

Political leaders in Nepal have signed a deal on a long-awaited new constitution, just weeks after April's devastating earthquake.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was the catalyst for a peace process in the restive Indonesian province of Aceh. Could Nepal's disaster also bring historic change?

What's been agreed?

Monday's 16-point agreement divides Nepal into eight federal states, the boundaries of which will be decided by a federal commission. The names of the states will be decided by a two-thirds majority vote in assemblies to be set up in each state.

Nepal will have a parliamentary form of government with two houses. The lower house will have 275 members, 60% of whom will be directly elected, while 40% will be elected through proportional representation. The upper house will have 45 seats.

The prime minister will have executive powers and be chosen from the biggest party or coalition in parliament. The country will also have a ceremonial president elected by parliament and provincial assemblies.

A constitutional court will be set up for 10 years to resolve disputes.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Many Nepalese felt their leaders were slow to respond to April's devastating earthquake

Did the earthquake focus minds?

It's been nearly 10 years since Maoist rebels laid down their arms and joined Nepal's political process. Politicians agreed to write a new constitution by 2010, but have failed to come to an agreement.

When the earthquake hit on 25 April, Nepal's prime minister, Sushil Koirala, was out of the country. It was several days before he and other politicians took a visible lead in directing rescue and relief efforts.

There was a sense among Nepal's population that the political deadlock had affected the politicians' ability to respond to the crisis. They were under pressure to show they could deliver.

However some believe the stronger parties took advantage of this to push through a deal which did not reflect the wishes of Nepal's smaller parties.

What's the timetable?

It's expected a draft constitution will be ready by July. It will then need to be approved by a two-thirds majority in parliament - the four parties who signed this deal have the numbers to do this. They are the Nepali Congress, the UML, the Maoists and one of the parties representing the Madhesi ethnic group from the south.

A federal commission will then have six months to draw up the borders of the eight provinces and submit a proposal for approval in parliament, though there are fears this process could drag on for years.

Image copyright AP
Image caption People from Nepal's remote areas, ethnic groups and southern plains feel they won't be included in this deal

What are the stumbling blocks?

The deal has been criticised as incomplete as it has yet to decide on the boundaries or names of the new provinces.

"The stumbling block is that the question of federalism, which has been at the heart of Nepali's political discourse for over five years now, has not been resolved," says Prashant Jha, author of Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

There are fears that the commission to decide the boundaries could be politically influenced. Many small political parties which represent ethnic groups and people from the southern plains, the Terai, have already voiced their opposition. It's unclear whether their demands for better representation will be met.

Will it really happen?

After years of deadlock over the new constitution this is a significant breakthrough which sees the end of the division between Nepal's Maoists, who have been campaigning for federalism, and the country's established political elite who have been reluctanct to cede power from Kathmandu.

But the deal could fall through because it does not resolve the differences between the country's main parties and its marginalised social and ethnic groups who feel excluded from this deal.

"Until the big parties reach out to these forces, we cannot call this a social contract which has the buy-in of Nepal's diverse groups," says Prashant Jha.

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