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NEPAL: PEACE HICCUP

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KATMANDU, Sep 19 2007 (IPS) - After the heady excitement of last year\’s pro-democracy uprising in Nepal that forced King Gyanendra to restore parliament, Nepal\’s eight-party coalition has fallen apart with the Maoists quitting government on Tuesday. The move did not come as a surprise, since the ex-guerrillas had been warning of just this for months. But it does put in doubt the fate of elections for the constituent assembly scheduled November 22, writes Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times newspaper and author of A People War. In this article the author writes that most of the estimated 15,000 ex-guerrillas are interned in camps supervised by a UN monitoring mission in Nepal and their weapons are under lock and key. On Tuesday, the UN expressed concern about the Maoists quitting the government, saying this would jeopardize the peace process. The hope now is that behind-the-scenes negotiations currently underway will produce an agreement that the first meeting of the constituent assembly after elections will declare Nepal a republic. It remains to be seen whether the Maoists will agree to this, and if they do elections may still be possible. Otherwise they may be postponed. Nepal\’s peace process is not in jeopardy, and the Maoists are not about to go back to war. But it is proof of just how difficult it is for a group that has pursued armed struggle to transform itself into a pluralistic, non-violent political party.

The rebels joined forces with an alliance of seven parliamentary parties against King Gyanendra which led to the people power protests in April 2006. Since then, the Maoists have joined an interim parliament, helped write a transitional constitution, and six months ago were allotted five portfolios in the new cabinet.

But the transition has not been smooth. The former guerrillas have found it difficult to go from the jungles to parliament. There have been problems in the alliance, and the Maoist leaders who supported the peace process were being heavily criticized by their rank and file for having sold out on the revolution. On Tuesday, the Maoist ministers resigned en masse and the party announced a nationwide protest to put pressure on Prime Minister Girija Koirala to agree to their two main demands: declaration of a republic before elections and introduction of a system of proportional representation. The Maoists fear that the king will destabilize the country before elections and want him out of the way. They also fear that they won’t fare all that well at the polls and want proportional representation so that they would be guaranteed at least a few seats.

By quitting the government, the Maoists have tried to kill three birds with one stone. They have stolen the thunder back from ethnic groups that have recently become even more radical than they are; they have appeased the hardliners within their own party who were critical of Maoist ministers for not doing anything while in government; and they’ve managed to put alliance partners who are ahead of them in election preparations on the spot. The Maoists now obviously recognise the advantage of being seen as an opposition party during campaigning so they can tap anti-incumbency sentiment. They will try to project themselves as a force for change in contrast to the traditional parties which are seen as part of the status quo.

More worrying to the Maoist leadership is disgruntlement within its own ranks. Party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom-de-guerre of Prachanda (Fierce One), came under intense criticism at the party plenum last month from former commanders who blamed him for everything from living in luxury to being too soft on the alliance partners.

Withdrawing from the government was probably the minimum demand of the radicals. One standby option for the Maoists could be provoking street protests in the coming month so that elections would not be possible in November. In an internal review, the Maoists have concluded that they may not win more than 15 percent of the seats in a constituent assembly, and they would like very much to postpone voting. Their thinking must be that putting off elections to April would allow them to prepare better and improve their chances. But even this is doubtful. In the past 18 months of the ceasefire, instead of trying to behave like a mainstream party the Maoists have been high-handed and have deployed their young cadre to threaten businesses and political critics.

Most of the estimated 15,000 ex-guerrillas are interned in camps supervised by a United Nations monitoring mission in Nepal and their weapons are under lock and key. On Tuesday, the UN expressed concern about the Maoists quitting the government, saying this would jeopardize the peace process. The hope now is that behind-the-scenes negotiations currently underway will produce an agreement that the first meeting of the constituent assembly after elections will declare Nepal a republic. It remains to be seen whether the Maoists will agree to this, and if they do elections may still be possible. Otherwise postponement is likely.

Nepal’s peace process is not in jeopardy, and the Maoists are not about to go back to war. But the current situation is proof of just how difficult it is for a group that has pursued armed struggle to transform itself into a pluralistic, non-violent political party. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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