Photo Credit: Flickr user izahorsky
On May 1, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Nepal’s main opposition party, plans to launch a nationwide protest against the ruling government in support of a new “national government for peace” and a “people’s constitution.” The aim of the protests, which the Maoists assure will be peaceful, is to force current prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal out of office—thereby opening the door for the formation of a Maoist-led government—and ensure that a new constitution is drafted by the May 28 deadline. If Kumar’s ouster is not achieved, the Maoists will initiate an indefinite general strike on May 2 that will shut down businesses, schools, and roads. This impending political unrest is linked to the expiration of the interim constitution on May 28. In April 2008, Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) was elected as an interim body with a two-year term in which to draft a new constitution. As the deadline approaches, however, it has become increasingly probable that the CA will be unable to complete the new constitution, each article of which must be approved by a two-thirds majority. On April 15, Jhala Nath Khanal, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal–Unified Marxist-Leninist Party (CPN-UML), which has jointly headed the government along with the Nepali Congress party since 2009, became the first leader to admit this fact, stating that “it is not possible to produce the constitution if we follow the procedures of the CA, in view of differences among the political parties over crucial provisions to be enshrined in the new statute.”
Heated disputes between the Maoists, whose party is the largest in the CA with 38 percent of the seats, and the ruling party coalition have been the norm since Nepal transitioned from a monarchy to a democratic republic in 2008. The political evolution of the Maoists, who transitioned from a rebel faction in Nepal’s 1996-2006 civil war to the country’s ruling party in 2008, has been a tumultuous one. During their period of rule from August 2008-May 2009, the Maoists continuously behaved as if still engaged in a civil war, using threats of renewed revolution to promote their agenda. Several opponents and observers have accused the Maoists of opposing party pluralism, instead favoring a system with communist facets. Furthermore, the party often seemed to flout its commitment to democratic ideals, interfering in the judiciary by appointing pro-Maoist candidates to posts and dismissing criminal cases against Maoist cadres. Nepal’s other major parties proved unable or unwilling to work productively with the Maoists, partly due to the existence of debilitating internal problems including their exclusive, non-democratic nature, their failure to develop cohesive policy platforms and agendas, and their weak ties to the electorate. Ultimately, the Maoist prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or Prachanda, resigned after his attempt to dismiss army chief Rookmangud Katawal due to his opposition to the integration of Maoist combatants into the Nepalese Army prompted the president to intervene and two parties to desert the Maoist-led ruling coalition, leaving the coalition with a minority. As the Countries at the Crossroads 2010 report notes, this clash was illustrative of the weakness of Nepal’s institutional checks and balances. Since their exit from government leadership, the Maoists, led by Prachanda, have remained uncooperative, organizing several protests against a coalition government they accuse of thwarting the peace process. As such, the government has been frequently paralyzed.
Such political antics have undermined the country’s ability to build democratic institutions and address post-conflict challenges, especially within the realm of rule of law. Although formal civilian control over the military was established in 2006, the army has retained some autonomy, and not much progress has been made toward the integration of some 21,000 Maoist cadres into the Nepalese Army. Furthermore, crime and insecurity remain dire concerns, especially in the unstable Terai region. In addition, few efforts have been made to address the crimes committed during the civil war, partly due to the fact that the parties have used this continued lack of accountability to shield their leaders and loyalists. In addition, little progress has been made on the restitution of lands that were seized during the civil war, the majority of which remain in Maoist hands.
Most importantly, partisan wrangling has consistently thwarted the CA process, which is meant to determine crucial institutional issues. Constitutional debate has deteriorated into mud-slinging as the Maoists argue that the ruling coalition is abandoning Nepal’s marginalized sectors in the new constitution; opponent counter that the Maoist aim is to destroy the CA process, keep their own army, and ultimately take over the state. Major issues on which the two groups have failed to come to agreement include the questions of a presidential or parliamentary system and whether the country’s federal structure should be ethnically- or geographically-based (the Maoists favor the former). As a result, the process has deadlocked, setting the stage for escalation. Ordinary Nepalese citizens, meanwhile, have become increasingly disillusioned with their government and skeptical of the possibility that a new constitution will ever be agreed on. As former parliamentary speaker Daman Dhungana states, “In the public eye, most of the leaders and their parties are already a discredited lot.”
A peaceful and timely resolution to Nepal’s dangerous predicament is still possible. Some optimistic experts argue that a provision in the interim constitution allows the current government to remain in place, while others claim that the interim constitution will retain its authority until the new constitution is completed. However, another group contests these claims, arguing that the CA cannot amending the interim constitution, and that the failure to deliver a new constitution by May 28 would bring about the end of power for the CA and the government it oversees, plunging the country into a crisis of leadership. Regardless of legalities, the Maoists have expressed their strong opposition to any extension of the CA and the government unless Kumar resigns.The failure of Nepal’s parties to cooperate now seriously threatens the survival of Nepal’s nascent democracy. A political vacuum and the eruption of renewed violence are distinct possibilities if the deadline is not met. While Maoist leaders have remained formally committed to completing the constitution before May 28, their confrontational tactics put the sincerity of their dedication to promoting Nepali democracy and peace in doubt. Furthermore, in apparent contradiction to their pledges to oppose the government exclusively through nonviolent means, there have been reports that Maoist cadres have begun to ramp up their combat training in preparation for a major falling out. In the past few days, several European nations, the United States, and Nepali citizens have urged Nepal’s political parties to work together to avoid the looming crisis by reaching agreement on a draft version of the new constitution. In the face of such pressure, Nepal’s major parties agreed on April 28 to increase their efforts to move past deadlock. The CPN-UML offered to renounce its leadership in the government if the parties are able to satisfactorily address all major issues and the Maoists agree to cancel their strike. In turn, the Maoists agreed to call off the strike if consensus on all major issues is reached by April 30. While the last ditch effort to compromise is encouraging, the parties are left with mere days to resolve differences they have been consistently unable to tackle throughout the CA’s mandate.