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KATHMANDU, Jan 21 2008 (IPS) - After much bargaining and dithering Nepal\’s governing alliance, which includes the former Maoist guerrillas, has finally agreed to hold its twice-postponed elections in April, writes Kunda Dixit, editor and publisher of the Nepali Times newspaper in Kathmandu and the author of the book, A People War. In this article, Dixit writes that a lot of things can go wrong between now and then. Maoist hardliners could try to sabotage polls in which they feel they will have a poor showing. The radical right, still loyal to sidelined King Gyanendra, could provoke violence. Militant groups in the plains bordering India may prevent voting. Or all of the above. It looks likely that although Nepal is a republic on paper, the monarchy will still be an issue in elections. This would distract voters from the real issues of a new constitution. But many Nepalis now think the king is just not worth the trouble to keep any more. April\’s elections will bring closure to this prolonged transition, and hopefully clarity to the political process so that Nepal\’s new rulers can at last turn their attention to lifting the living standards of Asia\’s poorest people.
A lot of things can go wrong between now and then, as has happened in the past. Maoist hardliners could try to sabotage polls in which they feel they will have a poor showing. The radical right, still loyal to sidelined King Gyanendra, could provoke violence. Militant groups in the plains bordering India may prevent voting. Or all of the above.
Indeed, it was one or more of these reasons that caused the postponement of polls, first in June and again in November. But this time it looks like everyone has run out of excuses. The elections are to vote representatives to an assembly that will have to draft a new constitution and is the result of a ceasefire that brought an end to the year-long Maoist insurgency and a UN-monitored peace process.
An alliance between the underground Maoists and the mainstream political parties mounted a peaceful pro-democracy uprising in April 2006 that ended three years of absolute monarchy under King Gyanendra. Since then, the parties and the Maoists have been struggling to build a new political structure for Nepal brick-by-brick: trough 2006 and 2007 they signed a peace agreement ending a war that had killed nearly 15,000 people, sidelined the monarchy, set up an interim parliament that passed a transitional constitution. Then the Maoists joined the government.
But the goal of conducting constituent assembly elections has proved more difficult. The distrust level between the parties was so high that they have preferred to keep putting off facing voters rather than hold an election in which they would not do well. Bridging the trust gap hasn’t been easy in a country that has been ruled by a feudal monarchy for much of the past 240 years. The ruling alliance has found that fighting for democracy was easier than working together to make it work.
Thus, nearly two years after the king was removed from power, Nepal is still in limbo, neither a republic nor a monarchy. The interim parliament has passed a resolution saying that Nepal is a republic, but the king is still in the royal palace and is being paid by the tax payers.
There are three main parties in government: the moderate communist UML, the centre right Nepali Congress (NC), and the Maoists. The NC has been hedging its bets on keeping some form of ceremonial monarchy despite a republican wave among the younger cadre. The Maoists fought a war to turn Nepal into a republic and have been pushing for the declaration of a republic before elections because they say the king might otherwise try to interfere with the process. The compromise between the NC and the Maoists took more than a year to work out, with former US president Jimmy Carter even travelling to Nepal twice to mediate. The two parties agreed to get the interim parliament to pass a resolution on declaring a republic to be ratified by the first session of the constituent assembly. That opened the way for the Maoists to agree to participate in elections.
But, as is usual in Nepal, an agreement never means it will be honoured. Both the Maoists and the NC leadership are still under pressure from hardliners within their respective parties who fear moderate democrats more than they distrust each other. And there are other obstacles. The return of democracy in 2006 has led to an eruption of identity politics with many of Nepal’s 103 ethnic groups demanding fairer representation in governing the country. Foremost among these is the Madhesi people, about one-third of the population that lives in the southern plains bordering India. The Madhesis feel discriminated against by successive hill-dominated governments in Kathmandu. They are represented by moderate regional parties and militant groups. Both have announced new anti-government protests from Saturday unless their demands for electoral reforms and representation are met.
Analysts say the danger now is that reactionary royalists will seize on the unrest in the plains to incite violence so elections cannot be held. Prime Minister Girija Koirala of the NC has appointed his daughter Sujata to the cabinet and seems to be grooming her as heir apparent. She has been speaking out in favour of the monarchy, probably to attract a block vote of the electorate which doesn’t want the present king to continue but would like to retain some form of ceremonial monarchy.
It looks likely that although Nepal is a republic on paper, the monarchy will still be an issue in elections. This would distract voters from the real issues of a new constitution. But many Nepalis now think the king is just not worth the trouble to keep any more. April’s elections will bring closure to this prolonged transition, and hopefully clarity to the political process so that Nepal’s new rulers can at last turn their attention to lifting the living standards of Asia’s poorest people.(END/COPYRIGHT IPS)
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