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POLITICS-NEPAL: Parties at Odds, Peace at Risk

Damakant Jayshi

KATHMANDU, Jan 4 2010 (IPS) - Nepal’s walk to peace from a decade-long, Maoist-led bloody insurgency that ended four years ago could take longer than expected.

That is, if the peace process, negotiated between the seven opposition parties and the formerly outlawed Maoist party, does not fail before reaching its logical conclusion – the completion of the new constitution by an elected assembly and the general elections soon thereafter.

The two-year deadline by which the constitution should be written and promulgated is May 2010. But the Constitution Assembly (CA) – tasked to draft the Constitution – has had to revise its calendar, a detailed date-specific progress toward completion of the new Constitution, for the eighth time since it was convened in may 2008.

The growing animosity between and among the political parties has only dismayed the general public. Broadcast media reports, particularly on two local television channels – Kantipur TV and Avenues – have shown people from various walks of life expressing their anger and frustration.

To compound the problem, the parties disagree on all major issues to be incorporated in the Constitution – preamble, fundamental rights, federal model, the number and nature of federal states and distribution of natural resources, to say the least.

Still another challenge is to find an amicable solution to the future of more than 19,000 Maoist combatants living in 28 United Nations-monitored cantonments throughout the Himalayan country.

Their integration into the security forces, especially in the Nepal Army, is turning out to be a major hurdle. The Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist or UML), two of the largest ruling parties, have demanded that integration and rehabilitation take place before the promulgation of the Constitution on May 28 this year.

Most of the non-Maoist parties (leftist, centrist and rightist) have united for the time being against the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (UCPN-Maoist), which they accuse of trying to create anarchy to “capture the state”. What has not helped is the aggressive statements and remarks by top leaders of the main opposition party, threatening a revolt if their demands are not met.

The two top leaders – party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Dr Baburam Bhattarai have issued threats. ‘Prachanda’ (translated as the ‘fierce one’) said the “older parties” (NC and the UML) were preparing for war, and so the Maoists needed to prepare for one as well. More than 13,000 people were killed during the Maoist insurgency.

Similarly, Dr Bhattarai, who is the in charge of the Maoist protest actions, keeps talking about launching another revolt against the state. He has been making remarks about “capturing the state” in Kathmandu as well as in the districts on numerous occasions.

The heart of the problem is power sharing. The UCPN (Maoist), the single largest party in the Constitution Assembly, which also doubles as parliament, is insisting on a national unity government under its leadership.

The dominant sections in the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) or the CPN-UML, which are leading an 18-party coalition, are in no mood to concede. They have instead challenged the Maoists to cobble a majority in the 601-member House and lead the government again, which they had quit in early May 2009. The UCPN (Maoist) has 240 members.

“The Maoists, who have no one to blame but themselves for being out of the government, are unable to state their real demand in a straightforward manner,” Professor Krishna Khanal, a respected political analyst, tells IPS. “So they are focusing on correcting the President’s move and civilian supremacy.”

On May 3 last year, the Maoist-led coalition government decided to dismiss Nepalese Chief of Army Staff General Rookmangud Katawal, charging him of insubordination. Despite threats of withdrawal of support from all the coalition partners, the UCPN (Maoist) went ahead unilaterally.

Twenty-two political parties represented in the assembly, including erstwhile coalition partners, asked President Ram Baran Yadav to block the dismissal, which he did. The Maoists quit in protest. Since then they have launched a nationwide campaign to reestablish “civilian supremacy.” Later, they added the demand for a national unity government under their leadership.

“Let the Maoists first prove that they are a civilian party before talking about civilian supremacy,” Jhala Nath Khanal, chairman of the CPN-UML, says, referring to reports of violence by Maoist cadres against other party members and renewed seizure of private and government land and properties.

To step up pressure after staging three rounds of protests that culminated in a three-day nationwide shutdown late last month, the Maoists have threatened to launch an indefinite strike beginning on Jan. 24 if their demands are not met.

Dina Nath Sharma, CA member and spokesperson of the Maoist party, says leading the government is one of their goals but he insists it is not the only goal. “We want to establish civilian government’s control over the national army and finish the writing of the Constitution in time.” Of course, he adds, it is only natural that this happens under a government led by his party.

He dismisses the contention that his party lacks a majority in the parliament. “This is the drawback of the parliamentary system, and that’s why we have suggested discarding it.”

The party has been at pains to persuade its rivals that it is all for democracy but wants to do away with the Westminster model of parliamentary system so it can be replaced with a system that will allow the people to directly elect the executive president.

The Westminster model is patterned after the British system, from where the group of Cabinet ministers is drawn. The ministers are in turn answerable to the parliament. Other countries’ systems grant limited power to the parliament.

“Isn’t it undemocratic that the largest party is in opposition?” Sharma asks.

Prof Khanal agrees. “It is an unnatural since the third largest party in the assembly is leading the government and the largest is in opposition.” He suggests a deal, with Constitution-drafting at its core.

“The three big parties should agree on working together to finish the writing of the constitution in time and take the peace process to its logical end.” This would mean restructuring the government, he says. “A real power-sharing deal that satisfies the Maoists could be the way out and it does not have to be only a Maoist-led government.”

The CA, which has to finish writing the Constitution by May 28, is way behind the schedule. With four months remaining, there are calls to extend the term of the Constituent Assembly, a suggestion opposed by some constitutional experts.

There have been various interpretations of the Interim Constitution as to what would happen if the new constitution was not written within its stipulated time. Aware that is time is slipping away, the three parties, on their part, have been holding rounds of dialogue but have not been able to resolve the political deadlock.

On Friday, Dec. 31, they agreed on a six-point agenda for discussion to find a way out of the crisis. The agenda – ending growing mistrust, power sharing, constitution drafting, the President’s move to reinstate the army chief, integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants, and reviewing all past agreements related to the peace process – has kindled some hope among the people, but chances remain slim.

The parties agree there is no alternative to consensus but are unable to reach it.

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