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Will a New ‘Hybrid’ Negotiating Process Save Nepal’s Prospects for Peace?

June 16, 2010

The “peace process” in Nepal should have culminated on May 28, 2010, with a new constitution. Instead, the Constituent Assembly has been extended for another year. Even in the last three months when the negotiations appear to have intensified, nothing has moved ahead, not the constitution writing and not the integration and rehabilitation of the Maoist ex-combatants. Moreover, there is no “process” as such to move the agenda of the peace process forward from here. The big three political parties – Maoists, Nepali Congress, and the Unified Marxist Leninists (the latter two are in the ruling coalition) – meet every now and then to negotiate on the combatants issue and power-sharing agenda. When a certain meeting fails to make progress, the party members simply go back to their corners and keep quiet for a few days until they meet again. This impasse has sadly continued like this for the last several months.

Unfortunately the debates among the Constituent Assembly members, elected as the supreme body to write the new constitution, are rather predictable, with firm and opposing positions predetermined by the respective parties. Therefore, the Assembly is not conducive to negotiations on the contentious issues surrounding the new constitution, like the number of provinces and what form of state administration and electoral system to create, among many others. Since the largest party in the Assembly, the Maoists who control 39 percent, oppose the legislature-parliament, the ruling coalition has always felt morally weak, lacking the political strength to lead the constitution-writing process on its own without the cooperation of the Maoists. Amid this rather dismal stalemate, there is no mechanism to manage the “process” in order to engage the parties in continuous negotiation. One such body, the High Level Political Mechanism, finally formed in January after much back and forth, but has now largely fizzled out with the passing in March of the Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala, the official leader and inspiration behind the peace process mechanism.

When the election date for the Constituent Assembly was set for April 2008, the then Seven- Party Alliance and the rebel Maoists thought that there was not much left on the table to negotiate and terminated their official negotiating teams. The party members assumed that the Assembly would serve as the new institutional space for negotiation on differing issues for the new constitution. However, the Assembly never gained enough broad legitimacy, and failed to serve as such, while most of the negotiations ended up taking place outside the Assembly between the political parties themselves.

When people refer to Nepal’s attempts over the last three years at peace and democratic transitions, it is common to refer to the attempts as a “process.” But I sometimes feel, and many others agree, that there has actually been no “process” taking place at all in the last two years. Each time a crisis arises, a few second-tier politicians from the major parties sit down to prepare an environment for dialogue, rebuild lost trust, develop a fresh agenda for negotiations, and take the initiative to bring their top leaders together. These second-tier leaders are often more “forward-looking” than others within their parties, and are at times also involved in the formal dialogue when it happens, especially during moments of crises. If there has been any uninterrupted process so far, it is from these informal second-tier level talks, and it is quite possible that this process has prevented the peace “process” from falling apart completely. My role as manager of The Asia Foundation’s low-profile, informal USAID-funded Nepal Transition to Peace (NTTP) Initiative over the last five years has only increased my faith in an initiative that is neither “Track I” nor “Track II,” per se. It could well be termed as “Track II Plus,” made up of stakeholders that are not Track I but are sufficiently and directly linked to the Track I process and its players to have meaningful influence.

The current government may soon step down which may leave us with a new Maoist-led government in its place. But, whatever party controls the new government, it will still lack the required independent mechanism to successfully implement the peace process. It is also unlikely that the parties will have a trusted institutional space to negotiate consensus on the many contentious issues of the new constitution. Therefore, this Track II Plus process seems to be the only hope to keep the “process” from falling by the wayside completely. It could also be argued that Nepal’s future political leadership could emerge out of this process – and new leadership is something we all would welcome.

Bishnu Sapkota is a Program Advisor for The Asia Foundation’s Nepal Peace Support Project in Kathmandu. He can be reached at bishnu@taf.org.np.

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