June 04, 2008

New republic of Nepal

Can the Maoists respect both democracy and diversity?

Le Monde diplomatique.

Nepal became the world’s newest republic on 28 May. The former Maoist rebels, the main winners of April’s elections, lead the coalition government which has abolished the monarchy.

By Marie Lecomte-Tilouine

Nepal’s election of a constituent assembly on 10 April, with the former Maoist rebels as the main winners, was a major historical event. Political parties had demanded an election unsuccessfully in 1951; last year elections were cancelled twice. So this was an essential step towards the democracy most Nepalis desire. The heavy turnout – 60% – spoke for itself. That the election took place at all is a positive sign, demonstrating the shared wish of all parties to emerge from a lengthy stalemate.

The assembly’s 601 members, 220 of them Maoists of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M), have a heavy responsibility for the next two years of interim government. As well as their parliamentary obligations, they have to draft a new constitution. The provisional version, promulgated on 15 January 2007, embodies two problematic principles: the first, expected to be broached in the assembly’s initial session (three weeks after definitive election results have been announced), is the fate of the monarchy; the second is the creation of a federal system that divides Nepal into self-governing states.

The 28 million Nepalis belong to 100 ethnic groups speaking 60 languages. Nepal embraces more than 50 former independent kingdoms annexed between 1769 and 1815 by the Shah lineage from the small Gurkha kingdom in central Nepal, whose descendant remained on the throne until recently. Nepal has few natural resources other than waterpower; whole regions lack such basic infrastructure as roads and electricity. National unity is fragile and it is partly embodied in the sovereign. Dividing the country could present insoluble problems: the viability of future federated states will not be easy to assure.

But most politicians seem ready to accept reconciliation as a way to resolve the hiatus of many years. Nepal has undergone a troubled period since the introduction of a multi-party system in November 1990 after three decades of non-party government. Political violence flourished as governments came and went ever more rapidly.

In this context the small Maoist CPN-M began a “people’s war” on 13 February 1996. Forming an army which grew in power by the day, it acquired more sophisticated arms on the strength of its successes against the police and the armed forces. The assassination of King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya and six other members of the royal family by Crown Prince Dipendra in June 2001 (1) and the mobilisation of the army that autumn drove Nepal into civil war.

Apart from urban centres and the fertile Terai plain in the south, the government lost control to the CPN-M, which established ruling councils at village and district level, beginning a cultural revolution and putting the economy on a war footing. Because it was no longer possible to organise elections, the mandate of parliamentarians elected in 1999 was extended. Nepal went through extreme instability, and King Gyanendra unilaterally assumed absolute power on 1 February 2005.

At a time when everybody was working towards emancipation, the king suspended rights of association and expression. Local elections, staged without consulting the parties, were boycotted. This brought the major political groupings together around the need to revive democracy. The Nepal Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist Leninists (UML) – a centre-left social democrat party – along with the Maoists, formed the Alliance of Seven Parties (ASP) in December 2005. The PLA increased action during the winter of 2006. Then an unprecedented popular uprising, organised by the parties, including the Maoists, persuaded the king to hand over power, which he did in a television broadcast just before midnight on 24 April 2006.

End to civil war
On 18 May 2006 parliament formally stripped the king of his powers and proclaimed Nepal a democratic secular state. The peace accord signed that November ended 10 years of civil war estimated to have caused 13,000 deaths, with thousands wounded, displaced and missing. The United Nations monitored the PLA’s soldiers and weaponry, a provisional constitution was drafted and elections for a constituent assembly organised.

But from the start the parties were unable to agree on a voting system or on how electoral boundaries would be drawn up. Elections set for June and then for November 2007 were aborted when campaigns were already under way. In the end a mixed voting system was adopted, with 240 deputies elected on a first-past-the-post majority, 335 by proportional representation and 26 nominated by the council of ministers.

This April some 90,000 Nepali observers, along with 1,000 from the international community, were deployed and the frontier with India was closed for three days to prevent violence from splinter groups based in Bihar. The authorities were prepared to call out the army but 135,000 police kept the peace at 9,821 voting stations where 17.6 million people could cast their votes for 9,648 candidates. The high level of participation was important and few incidents were reported except at a handful of stations where polling had been suspended.

Forecasting the outcome of the election was all but impossible: the Maoists stood for the first time and many parties had been formed specifically – the electoral commission registered 54. Early results were a shock, followed by a long silence from the media and the world. Against all expectations, the former rebel Maoists from the CPN-M took 120 out of 240 of first-past-the-post deputies and 100 of the 335 decided by proportional representation. They were way ahead of the NC (110 seats altogether) and the UML (103 seats). The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum won 52 seats, while the remaining 116 seats went to smaller parties and nominated individuals.

The Maoist party will be the major force in the constituent assembly while the NC and the UML, major players in the previous coalition government, were defeated. The Maoist success is put down to a general desire for change; the other two parties had failed to better the economic situation when in power in the 1990s.

Common ground
Considerable common ground between the three major parties will help in the constituent assembly. All are committed to a multi-party state already enshrined in the provisional constitution, to a bicameral legislative system and to a federal government which respects specific ethnic and regional differences. Points of divergence include a presidential system (embraced only by the CPN-M) as well as the fate of 20,000 former combat troops from the PLA. The PML favours merging them with Nepal’s standing army while the PNC-M believes that the two forces should co-exist as separate entities. The NC’s views on the matter were not clear.

Although the ASP had already proclaimed Nepal a republic, a segment of the population remained attached to the concept of monarchy. The king, who had kept a low profile since renouncing power in April 2006, made known his belief that a decision to ratify the new constitution should be taken by the people. However, all the main parties were in agreement that the king should step down, and on 28 May the constituent assembly overwhelmingly voted to end royal rule and proclaim a republic.

The main challenge for the republic is in building a successful federation. The three major parties broadly agree on the principle, but the way future state boundaries are drawn will be controversial; many ethnic (see “Nepal’s main ethnic groups”), religious and regional organisations will demand a say. Given the mosaic of Nepal, no one area or grouping can claim an outright majority. The numerous indigenous peoples, who represent 33% of the total population, separately claim restitution of what they consider to be ancestral land.

The most crucial debate involves the future of the rich Terai plain where more than half of Nepalis now live after 50 years of migration from the northern mountains and the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to the south. The Madhesis, the original plain dwellers who are also 33% of population, have long been seen as second-class citizens, “savages” to westerners and “cowards” to mountain people.

A single state
Recently, the Madhesis have wanted to organise themselves politically to protect their rights as well as their preference for violent methods. They demand a single state covering the whole Terai plain, hard to create without unbalancing the federation. The leading force behind this movement, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, will use its new elected strength to further its case. Political strife, transferred from the mountains to the plain, might well increase there.

Nepal’s genuine desire for peace was shown by the conduct of the elections, but new threats emerged with the Maoists’ strong showing. First the leader of the UML resigned, then party representatives declared they would not take up their seats in the assembly because of their poor showing; intermediaries intervened to deal with the problem. The NC revealed its belief that the results were heavily influenced by an intimidation campaign by the Maoists. Even so, momentum since the election has been reconciliatory and there is every indication that the other major parties will participate in a coalition led by the Maoists. In bilateral discussions, the NC and the UML agreed on an equal share of power.

The financial community is worried about developments. The PCN-M made abolition of “unfair” treaties with India a main theme of its campaign (2), but after the elections its leaders visited India while the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu, Rakesh Sood, said the countries have drawn closer.

Although the United States still has the Maoists on its list of proscribed terrorist organisations, US Ambassador Nancy Powell had constructive talks with the powerbrokers before being recalled to Washington in May.

The PCN-M’s two leaders (Pushpa Dahal, known as Prachanda the Terrible, and Baburam Bhattarai) have done everything possible to reassure people by declaring that they are ready to work with other groupings to establish democracy. They stress their commitment to create an economic revolution along modern capitalist lines and to handle the king’s departure with respect. At least until it demonstrates a radical change of ideology, fears remain that the majority party will practise “de-Maocracy” and that the rights of those groups it previously considered class enemies will be denied.

Translated by Robert Waterhouse

Marie Lecomte-Tilouine is an anthropologist at France’s National Scientific Research Centre and coordinator of the national research agency programme, The People’s War in Nepal

(1) Dipendra was mortally wounded. Prince Gyanendra, the king’s brother, who was not at the royal palace in Kathmandu during the attack, was proclaimed the new king by the Royal Council.

(2) Notably the peace and friendship treaty of 1950, along with the Mahakali treaty of 1966 which forced Nepal to sell to India part of the energy produced by this river.

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