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Nepal’s Constituent Assembly Gets New Lease, But Politics Go Back to Square One

June 2, 2010

On May 28, 2010, three major political parties of Nepal, including the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), signed a three-point agreement pushing the deadline for promulgating a new constitution to May 28, 2011. Without that amendment, the Assembly’s constitutional tenure would have ended without having produced even a first draft of the new constitution, leaving Nepal’s peace process in a constitutional vacuum. For now, the crisis has been avoided, but the politics that produced this crisis in the first place remain the same.

In the lead-up to May 28, the Maoists managed to mobilize about 200,000 people from the surrounding districts of Kathmandu to lay siege on the capital, forcing the closure of schools, offices, and shops and instilling fear of violence into citizens. The stated purpose was to force Prime Minister Madhav Nepal to resign so that a government capable of ensuring timely drafting of the constitution and expediting the implementation of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Accord could take its place. Such a government, according to the Maoists, could only be possible with the Maoists at the helm. After five days, however, the siege had to be unceremoniously withdrawn, due to lack of public support; but the Maoists had made their point that they should be allowed to lead the government.

The Maoists are the largest party in the Constituent Assembly, but a 22-party coalition has managed to push them to the fringes of national politics. The president, the prime minister, the Assembly’s chair, and the chair of the Constitution Drafting Committee all come from other parties. Moreover, since the vote of approval on the constitution requires a two-thirds majority, Nepal will not get a new constitution without the approval of the Maoists. On the floor of the Assembly, on the other hand, the same coalition holds sway on several issues that Maoists deeply care about, such as judicial reform and land redistribution. The Maoists understandably feel that they have been denied a role commensurate with their political strength.

Although the Maoists are the largest party, they do not command a simple majority, much less the two-thirds required to pass a constitution of their liking. The current coalition’s “hegemony,” in fact, has become possible only through a series of missteps that Maoists took while they were in power for nine months after the Assembly’s elections: the failed attempt to install a favorable officer at the helm of the Nepal Army in May 2009; the unwarranted resignation of the Maoist Prime Minister Prachanda soon after; the six-month-long stalling of the parliament; and the brazen procrastination around the issue of ex-Maoist combatant integration and rehabilitation. All these served to drive disparate non-Maoist parties in the Assembly into one powerful anti-Maoist coalition. That coalition now has become a formidable political force that the Maoists cannot numerically or politically defeat.

And here we arrive at the impasse in Nepali politics. When you look at what Nepal has achieved in the last two years, there is very little to show. On the last day of the Assembly’s constitutional tenure, there were deadlocks on as many as 99 provisions of the first draft of the constitution; 19,600 former combatants were still in cantonments with no agreement in sight; the respective acts on the commissions on Truth and Reconciliation and Disappearances were still being drafted; the local peace commissions were barely functional; and land seized during the decade-long conflict had still not been returned to people who were displaced.

To their credit, however, the parties now seem to have at least figured out what they want more clearly than before. They are in fact looking for logical framework-type indicators to settle long-drawn differences. For the non-Maoist coalition, the only thing that affirms the Maoist intent to transform themselves into a non-violent political party is their willingness to expedite the integration and rehabilitation of former combatants.

On this point, the coalition insists that until the Maoists agree on a timeline and a tentative number of combatants to be integrated into the security forces (such that the remaining combatants can be rehabilitated in society), it will not yield political space to the Maoists. The Maoists argue that they have no reason to give up on the most effective bargaining chip against the coalition without adequate assurance that the Maoists would be allowed to meaningfully participate in the affairs of the state and the constitutional process. The indicator of that “adequate assurance” for the Maoists has now boiled down to one event – the unconditional resignation of the current prime minister.

If Nepal’s political parties continue to behave as usual, there will be no breakthrough in the near future. If, however, they muster enough courage to do the right thing and embark upon an incremental, agreed upon, simultaneous list of actions, a new rapprochement in Nepali politics is not far away. Until that happens, Nepali politics will stay where they have been for the last two years – at square one.

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

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