Asia-Pacific, Headlines

Nepal Uneasy Under Uncertain Leadership

Damakant Jayshi

KATHMANDU, Feb 13 2011 (IPS) - Nepal’s fourth communist and newest Prime Minister has taken his oath of office, but his government is off to a shaky start after revelations he entered into a secret deal to share power with a key political ally and to turn Nepal into a socialist state.

Newly elected Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal taking the oath of office from President Ram Baran Yadav. Credit: Damakant Jayshi

Newly elected Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal taking the oath of office from President Ram Baran Yadav. Credit: Damakant Jayshi

The election and oath taking of Jhala Nath Khanal, chair of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) or CPN-UML, ended a political deadlock that saw Nepal without a prime minister for more than seven months.

But the relief and euphoria proved to be short-lived, after an agreement Khanal signed with Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chair of Nepal’s largest political party Unified CPN (Maoist), was leaked to the press.

In the seven-point agreement, initially kept secret from even top leaders of both their parties, Khanal and Dahal are to head the government on a rotation basis.

The deal also called for the creation of a “socialist” state and the formation of a separate armed force either of Maoist combatants alone, or of Maoist combatants and government security personnel combined.

Nepal’s two biggest newspapers criticised the Dahal-Khanal agreement. In an editorial, the Nagarik daily said Nepal is headed toward one-party rule as in China, Vietnam and Cuba.

The centrist Nepali Congress (NC), Nepal’s second largest party, also denounced the deal and said it went against efforts to draft a new constitution and various peace-related agreements drawn up since 2006.

But the biggest and most immediate challenge to Khanal comes from within his own party, Nepal’s third largest, and the Unified CPN (Maoist), whose support the new government depends on.

The CPN-UML and the Unified CPN (Maoist) are in disagreement over the allocation of most sought-after ministries such as Finance and Home. The UCPN (Maoist) has announced that it would not join the government unless it was given Home and CPN-UML formally owned up the agreement.

On Feb. 12, Khanal named his party colleague and recently appointed deputy prime minister Bharat Mohan Adhikari as finance minister. Meanwhile, the Khanal camp of the CPN-UL has signalled willingness to address the concerns of the Maoists.

There are also differences over which party should head the politically sensitive Ministry of Defence in post-civil war Nepal.

The message from the Khanal’s own CPN-UML is that they would not recognise the agreement. The Maoist party, on the other hand, has insisted on implementing it.

“If the prime minister forms the cabinet without our consent, we can withdraw our support,” said Narayan Kaji Shrestha, vice-chairman of the Maoist party.

Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, also serving as its interim parliament, had been trying to elect a successor to Madhav Kumar Nepal of CPN-UL, who resigned in June 2010.

After 16 rounds of voting spread over six months, Khanal was elected prime minister Feb. 3. There were four candidates in the fray but Maoist chief Dahal withdrew his candidacy in favour of Khanal, arguing he did so to prevent another series of fruitless voting.

The details of the Dahal-Khanal deal remain vague. The NC has objected to the two communist parties leading the government on rotation basis. With the Constituent Assembly’s term expiring in four months, this has raised questions about the intentions of the two parties. The assembly was elected for two years in 2008 and its term was extended for a year on May 28 last year.

“This deal smacks of totalitarianism,” Nepali Congress’ Bimalendra Nidhi told IPS. Nidhi said that the two communist parties have demonstrated their penchant to stay in power for a long time. “Their understanding won’t help the politics of consensus, peace process and constitution-writing.”

Speaking to IPS, Dina Nath Sharma, spokesperson of the Unified CPN (Maoist), disagreed. “How is this totalitarianism?” Sharma said his party and the CPN- UML want to share power with Nepali Congress. “We have asked them to join the coalition and we will welcome them if they decide to change their mind.”

The NC, which has 110 members in parliament, has rejected this outright.

This latest upheaval in Nepal’s politics has overshadowed the breakthroughs that this Himalayan country, which was ravaged by a violent, decade-long Maoist insurgency, has achieved.

On Jan. 22, the Maoist army, numbering close to 20,000 and living in 28 camps across Nepal, was brought under the Special Committee of the government through a formal ceremony in Shaktikhor cantonment in Chitwan district. This move, though delayed, was in line with the Interim Constitution of 2007 and other agreements.

The Special Committee takes over the task of the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), which left the country Jan. 15. UNMIN had been mandated to monitor the management of arms and armed personnel of the Nepal Army and the Maoist army, and providing technical assistance to the Election Commission.

Based on previous agreements, the Maoist combatants are to be either integrated into government security forces, or rehabilitated into society with a livelihood package if they chose not to join security forces. The Maoist and non-Maoist parties have not been able to forge an agreement on the number and the modality of integration of Maoist soldiers.

The polarisation within and between the political parties means one of their primary tasks remains uncertain: writing the constitution.

Pradip Gyawali, a member of parliament and spokesperson of UML admitted there was risk of polarisation in Nepali politics with NC, its recent partner in government, sitting out in opposition.

The parties disagree on nearly 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. But time is running out, since the CA’s term expires in May.

Gyawali told IPS it would be hard to justify another extension of the CA. He suggested a tentative draft of the constitution with basic features.

“It is unlikely that we will write a full-fledged constitution in four months’ time,” Gyawali said. “But we can agree on some fundamentals and prepare a draft and leave the rest for the new parliament or another elected body.”

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