Nepal bracing for deeper trouble
THE Himalayan country of Nepal, already at the threshold of a political crisis stemming from growing acrimony among the principal players, seems to be moving towards deeper trouble with no sign for a settlement of the standoff.
Even though major political parties had earlier averted a constitutional deadlock by reaching a fragile temporary understanding, their failure to go ahead with the spirit of that understanding has raised the spectre of uncertainty in the political landscape of the nation.
Meanwhile, a new development challenging the leadership of Maoist supremo Prachanda has added a new element of interest in the scenario, although the matter is an internal affair of the radical leftist organisation.
He was thought to be invincible in the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and led the ten-year insurgency before coming to the surface and leading his party to electoral victory and then to power.
But now it appears that he too is losing his total authority as a section of the party feels that his second-in-command, Baburam Bhattarai, should take over as the prime minister in the event the Maoists again succeed in forming a government.
Nepal has been in the news for the last few years because of the unstable political situation and mayhem that eventually and fortunately led to a situation from where the country looked set to move forward, strengthening the democratic system and repairing the economic damage incurred during anti-monarchy movement.
The country showed positive signs after the abolition of the 240-year-old monarchy in a democratic manner. However, things are rather unfortunately reverting to the earlier political tension and instability as the major political parties are squabbling over the lion's share of the cake without taking into consideration the country's and the peoples' hopes and aspirations.
Consequently, Nepal is on the brink of more political instability with the government of Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and opposition Maoists facing-off over the resignation of the premier and the forming of the next government.
Not long ago the country was ruled by an effective monarchy, but in 1990 King Birendra acceded to the people's movement for democracy and a Westminster form of government was introduced, reducing the monarchy to a ceremonial one.
That the politicians, because of their corruption, lust for power and unnecessary feuds, failed to provide stable governments is a different story, but Nepal lost democracy following a mysterious palace massacre that eliminated King Birendra with mainstream royal family. His younger brother Gyanendra ascended to the throne and, taking the advantage of the fluid conditions, succeeded in binging back the monarchy.
The elected parliament was dissolved and the prime minister sacked, and a new government was formed. Not surprisingly, the politicians did not take kindly to all these steps and launched a movement for restoration of democracy. However, they could not make much of a dent as the king successfully consolidated his base and authority.
The impoverished nation, in the meantime, was convulsed by a severe ultra-left armed insurgency from 1996, seeking the abolition of the monarchy and turning of the country into a Republic. The conflict cost many lives as the ultras, known as "Maoists," were constantly engaged in battles with the army and other security forces.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal -- the leader of the Maoists whose nom de guerre is "Prachanda" (fierce) -- and his men controlled large swathes in rural Nepal. When the radical leftists, despite their differences with the established political parties like Nepali Congress and Communist Party (Marxist-Leninists), threw their weight behind the anti-monarchy agitation the King finally capitulated. Nepal went back to democracy with the revival of the dissolved parliament.
The three main political forces -- the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party and the Maoists -- decided to elect a constituent assembly that would draft the constitution for a "New Nepal." In the voting for the 602-member house, the Maoists, who had emerged as a conventional political party -- called Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) -- scored a stunning success by emerging as the biggest group, although they fell short of absolute majority.
The assembly took some remarkable steps like abolishing the monarchy altogether and turning the country from a Hindu monarchy to secular Republic. Indeed, these were historic decisions.
But sadly, this unity could not be maintained when the Maoists formed the government and the two other parties combined to be in the opposition. Prachanda, who was the prime minister, was at the helm for only nine months. He quit because of a number of issues, highlighted by his failure of include the former Maoist guerrillas into the regular army as the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party (M-L) objected to it.
Madhav Kumar took over as the prime minister of the new government, but relations with the opposition Maoists continued to get worse -- turning the political environment acrimonious.
But the main task of the constituent assembly, which was the drafting of a new constitution, remained largely unfinished even as the deadline was drawing nearer. It was impossible because of the growing hostility among the major contenders since two-third majority is required for the approval of the new constitution -- a Herculean task given the sharp political divide.
What is most alarming was that May 28 was the deadline for the assembly, but the parties concerned quarrelled without making any tangible progress towards its avowed task. The country moved inexorably towards a serious political crisis. Fortunately, last-ditch talks among the main parties averted that crisis temporarily as they agreed to extend the life of the constituent assembly by another one year so as to facilitate the enactment of the constitution. It was also agreed that the prime minister would quit soon -- a key demand of the Maoist -- for setting up a national government.
That averted the impending crisis, but developments belied the positive expectations as the warring sides argued over the conditions reached during the "understanding." Neither has the prime minister resigned so far, nor have the Maoists disbanded their armed youth wing.
Hence, the stand-off persisted, and was in a way further compounded by the Maoists harping on immediate resignation of the government, which turned the table on the opponents, saying that they were not abiding by the pledges. Overall conditions continued to worsen because of the diametrically opposite positions taken by the two sides. They may further deteriorate unless wisdom and a spirit of accommodation are demonstrated by the parties concerned.
The challenge to the leadership of Prachanda is providing spice to the entire scenario. He held a meeting with his confidant Baburam Bhattarai after a section of the party said that they preferred the latter as next prime minister should the Maoists be able to form the government again.
They say Prachanda was the premier once, but could not resolve problems like induction of the guerrillas into the regular Nepalese army and as such an opportunity should be given to Baburam who, however, is known as a moderate compared to his boss.
It was not clear what really transpired in their discussions, but if the Maoists fail to maintain their unity it may add another disturbing element in the otherwise restive political scene in Nepal, a geographically strategic country.