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Nepal: The Maoists are Gone but the Country Can’t do Without Them for Long

May 13, 2009

Just nine months after taking office, Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (known as Prachanda) resigned on May 4, 2009, citing the president’s lack of cooperation on his efforts to establish “civilian supremacy” over the Nepali Army. The events that led to his resignation unfolded quickly and predictably. On April 20, the Maoist government asked for an explanation from the Chief of the Army Staff (CoAS) citing three incidents of insubordination. The incidences cited were controversial administrative decisions, but whether they amounted to insubordination is debatable, given how serious a meaning the term carries in civil-military relations lexicon.

Parties inside and outside the ruling coalition immediately reacted to this move, seeing the event as a Maoist attempt to plant a “stooge” at the helm of the national army, while retaining firm control over 19,600 of their own combatants. Within two days, anybody who carried a little weight in Nepali politics – from foreign ambassadors to civil society leaders as well as his coalition partners – queued at Dahal’s residence to caution him on the dangers of meddling with the army. Dahal assured the retinue of visitors and the president that he would not fire the CoAS without bringing the political parties to a consensus.

Until May 3, no such consensus emerged. Around noon that day, Dahal chaired a cabinet meeting which has boycotted by his largest coalition partner, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist). He issued an order to relieve the CoAS of his duties and asked the second-in-command to take over. Around 10:30 p.m., 18 political parties representing a majority in the Constituent Assembly (CA), asked the president, the constitutional Supreme Commander of the Army, to revoke the order. Since Dahal’s cabinet had lost its majority by the time the decision was taken, the president sided with the emergent majority and asked the CoAS to continue until the cabinet corrected the constitutionality and legitimacy of its decision.

On May 4, when Dahal resigned, he appeared as if he was in a hurry to get out of the government. The row over the CoAS’s ouster was perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the Maoists are not lamenting. The Maoist-led government had come to power as the ordinary Nepali’s only real hope for change. In the nine months that this government stayed in power, the security situation worsened, ethnic conflicts flared further, corruption continued unabated, impunity became widespread with the Maoist cadres themselves becoming the flag bearers of political violence, industries started closing under worsening labor relations and progress on constitution drafting remained minimal. The hardliners within the Maoist party began to feel vindicated. Their argument that a revolutionary party does not succeed in an essentially incrementalist political system – and that it would be folly to take office until the state is fully captured – started to gain currency within the Maoist camp. Up until their national convention in November 2008, Dahal was able to pacify this camp by saying that he had not deviated from the ultimate goal of state capture and that leading the transition government would give the party tactical advantage in reaching its ultimate goal. By late April, this argument had failed to captivate the hardliners. Dahal had to choose between consolidating his weakening position within the party and retaining his premiership by shoring up support from outside his party; he chose the former.

What this episode means for the peace process is another story. Now that Dahal has succumbed to the hardliners in his party, even if the other political parties manage to form a government, they will remain without a partner to make real progress on the peace process. In about 12 months, the CA’s statutory tenure ends. There is no way that a constitution can be written within 12 months with the Maoists continuing to stay disengaged. At some point, a government sans the Maoist will have to step down, as well. If it happens alongside a changed momentum within the Maoist party, with Dahal or one of his comrades getting a nod from hardliners to try and lead the government one more time, there might be some hope for a fresh rapprochement that will allow the new constitution to be written.

Otherwise, historians are likely to note May 4 as the day when Nepal’s peace process derailed for all intents and purposes.

To see footage from the election that brought Dahal to power, see our video series on YouTube.

Sagar Prasai is The Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Nepal. He can be reached at sagar@taf.org.np.

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