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POLITICS-NEPAL: Statesman’s Death Leaves Worries About Peace Process

Bhuwan Sharma

KATHMANDU, Mar 21 2010 (IPS) - The death of Girija Prasad Koirala, who played a role in some of the biggest political changes in Nepal in recent decades, has many wondering about what will happen to the fragile peace process that he is widely credited for having made possible.

Crowds turn out as Nepali politician Girija Prasad Koirala's body is brought to final rites Sunday. Credit: Bhuwan Sharma/IPS

Crowds turn out as Nepali politician Girija Prasad Koirala's body is brought to final rites Sunday. Credit: Bhuwan Sharma/IPS

A man who commanded respect both within and outside the country, former prime minister and Nepali Congress party president Koirala succumbed to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on Saturday at the age of 85.

His last rites were performed at the Pashupati Aryaghat Sunday evening, as crowds turned out in the streets to pay respects to him. Koirala, the tallest figure in Nepali politics, had been unwell in recent years and his health deteriorated in the last two weeks.

Koirala’s stature and credibility across political lines is largely credited for forging a deal with the Maoist rebels and political leaders that led to the end of the decade-long violent insurgency in 2006. The Maoist war against the state claimed 16,000 lives.

The peace process began in 2006 when the Maoists joined mainstream politics, an event that changed the face of Nepalese polity and led to historic changes, such as the country’s transformation from a constitutional monarchy to a republic.

In 2008, the country voted in a 601-member constituent assembly tasked to write a new constitution. In its first sitting on May 28, 2008, the assembly abolished the 240-year-old institution of the monarchy — a key demand of the Maoist party prior to joining peaceful politics.

“Koirala was much more than a party leader. He was a statesman. He was revered by leaders across all parties,” Bishnu Rimal, politburo member of Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), told IPS.

“He had the credibility and the stature to oversee the completion of the peace process and the drafting of the new constitution,” said Ameet Dhakal, editor-in-chief of ‘Republica’, an English-language national daily.

Koirala was an indispensable part of Nepalese politics over the past two decades. He was at the forefront of two successful people’s movements for democracy, one in 1990 and the other in 2006. He became prime minister four times.

The statesman in Koirala came to the fore when he kept aside his hatred against communists to join hands with them to overthrow the monarchy, because he believed that the institution was the greatest threat to democracy.

In an obituary by top Maoist leader Babu Ram Bhattarai published in ‘Republica’, he wrote: “Perceived as a staunch anti-communist during most of his political life, he played a leading role in forging an anti-monarchy united front with the Maoist revolutionaries to usher in a republican set-up and died as a patron deity in the fragmented political firmament of Nepal.”

“The challenge now is to find a leader of Koirala’s stature who can unite leaders from divergent political backgrounds,” said CPN-UML’s Rimal.

The monarchy’s relevance hit rock bottom after it took direct control over the state, trampled over elected politicians’ role in running the country and dismissed parliament.

After calling then prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba incompetent, King Gyanendra Shah sacked him on Feb. 1, 2005 and took direct control took of running state affairs. Gyanendra had taken over as king following the 2001 royal massacre in which his older brother King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya, Crown Prince Dipendra and Prince Niranjan, among others, were killed.

Today, with just a little over two months left before the deadline for promulgating a new constitution expires in May, Koirala’s ability to bring together leaders from opposite ends of the political spectrum will be sorely missed.

The ruling coalition of 22 political parties led by CPN-UML’s Madhav Kumar Nepal and the main opposition party, the Maoists, are at loggerheads primarily over the issue of power sharing.

While the Maoists, which are the largest party in the constituent assembly, maintain that the incumbent government should resign and pave the way for a national unity government that they lead, the coalition holds the view that it has the numbers to lead the government.

The constitution, which has to be passed by a two-thirds majority in the constituent assembly, cannot be promulgated without the Maoists’ support because it holds 40 percent of the seats in the assembly.

The Maoists and other major parties are also at odds over a host of other issues ranging from the structure of a federal model to the system of governance to be adopted in the new constitution of Nepal.

While Koirala was revered for a host of reasons, he was also criticised for mistakes he made in his political journey of more than six decades.

In what is perhaps an irony, a person who devoted his life to the cause of democracy was often accused of failing to introduce democracy within his own political party. “He was an autocrat within his Nepali Congress,” wrote senior journalist Kanak Mani Dixit in ‘Himal South Asian’ magazine.

Koirala’s earlier three tenures as prime minister were also rocked by scandals. Toward the twilight of his life, he was severely criticised for going out of the way to promote his daughter Sujata Koirala. She now doubles up as deputy prime minister and foreign minister in the incumbent coalition.

But to many, Koirala’s contribution to national politics and history far outweighed his shortcomings. That was probably the reason why the government recently nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Perhaps the best tribute we can give to this tall leader is to write the constitution by May 28,” said Rimal. But in the vacuum left by Koirala’s absence, that may be easier said than done.

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