In Nepal: Making Sense of a Maoist Win
May 7, 2008
When the first set of results started pouring in after the April 10 polls, it looked as if the Maoists were heading for a landslide victory. But when the counting came to an end, the Maoists ended up with 240 seats, or 39.9 percent of the Constituent Assembly, followed by the Nepali Congress (NC) at 120 seats, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) at 113 seats, Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) at 52 seats, and smaller parties taking the rest. In the 601-member Assembly, according to the Interim Constitution, a two-thirds majority is required to form a government. Now that reality is sinking in, it’s clear no single party, or even two parties combined, can produce a governing majority. As a result, Nepal’s post-election government is likely to look and feel more or less similar to its pre-election government, except on one account: the Maoists will be heading this government.
Speculation is rife as to what this means for Nepal. For one thing, a revolutionary communist party, after failing to capture authority through a 10-year war that left more than 13,000 dead, has come to power through the unlikeliest of means: elections. This is as much an antithetical anecdote to political historians as it is a transformational experience for Nepal’s Maoists revolutionaries.
In the run-up to the elections, Maoist cadres told voters across the country that if they were not voted to power they would return to the jungles. While this message no doubt worked in their favor, and politicians from the mainstream parties blame this coercive tactic for their losses, an insurgent group that survived 10 years of war was not going to be obliterated by a lost election or pacified under the burden of popular rejection. This was too unrealistic an expectation to have from a shabbily managed peace process. The Nepali voters seem to have understood this predicament better than most political pundits who predicted a distant third position for the Maoists. The result was a surprise, but it appears not for everyone.
In politics, passion for ascending to power often pales in front of the desire to stay in power. This is what ordinary Nepalis, while voting the Maoists to power, pinned their hopes on. Their hope is that the Maoists, once in power, will not go back to the jungle; that, once elected, they will be convinced that electoral politics is not futile; and that, in order to stay in power, they will perform better than the dysfunctional mainstream political parties performed in the past.
On the first two accounts, I think Nepalis have placed a safe bet. The unexpected electoral success has provided the Maoist ranks with enough counter-ideological insight to fundamentally question the logic of their own politics. After more than a decade of preaching that power comes from the barrel of the gun, they have finally come to power without firing a single shot (some pre-election violence notwithstanding). After years of portraying the state as the ruthless predator, they are about to take the helm of the state itself. These shifts may change the way the party functions at both the ideological level and in its everyday interface.
Where the Maoists will have a significant problem meeting the expectations of the people is in performance and service delivery. The next government will have to immediately grapple with an unprecedented commodity crisis. By refusing to adjust petroleum prices to global prices before the election, the previous government has forced the state-owned oil monopoly to accumulate a debt of $50 million in the last six months with a projected loss of $300 million in the next 12 months. The Maoist-led government will have to raise petroleum prices by 25 percent within days of taking the oath of office. The price of food has been rising roughly 10-15 percent every quarter, and it will not be long before people begin to compare prices before and after the Maoists came to power. Similar is the story of construction materials, fertilizers, and metals.
The peace and restructuring work will be equally expensive. The proposition of integrating Maoist combatants in the military is one of the most popular ideas within the party ranks. The leadership will find it difficult to ward off this pressure, denting the state coffers more deeply. “Revolutionary” land reform is another expectation that will require early action. Unfortunately, this may come at a time when food prices have become most sensitive to production disruptions. Maoists will also have to be responsive to needs for rehabilitation and reconstruction.
Then there is the litany of promises made during the elections: free senior secondary education; a complex grid of railway lines, cable cars and highways; a 15-fold increase in electricity production; doubling of the minimum wage; land titles to all landless; food subsidies for the poor; a growth rate of 15-20 percent; higher pensions; unemployment benefits; and so on.
To add to the performance pressure, this government has a short two-year mandate, with the constitutional provision for an extension of no more than six months. Thereafter, the country is to go into a general election under a new constitution. The Maoists will have to prove their worth by then. They may or may not succeed politically, but they will most definitely learn that it is easier to be revolutionary ideologues than to be pragmatic statesmen. By that time, however, becoming credible revolutionaries again will no longer be a realistic option.
Sagar Prasai is The Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Nepal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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