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Are Maoists Changing Tune Ahead of Nepal’s May 28 Constitutional Deadline?

May 11, 2011

On May 28, 2011, Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) will end its tenure, for the second time, without having completed even a first draft of the constitution. In the lead-up to the deadline, a strike by ethnic and indigenous groups nearly shut down the nation’s capital Kathmandu late last month, while several bandhs (shut downs) have been announced for next week for the capital as well as other cities in the provinces.

Last year, in the nail-biting late hours of May 28, a three-point deal struck between major political parties gave the CA a 12-month extension to complete the drafting process. At that time, in addition to agreeing to extend the CA’s term by a year, the parties had agreed to have the MK Nepal government resign within two weeks to pave the way for a new consensus government, and concurrently, to take immediate and verifiable steps to initiate the integration and rehabilitation of former combatants. None of that, of course, happened once the extension vote was passed.

The MK Nepal government did resign, but not within 15 days of signing the deal as promised. It took about five months to form the next government, but it wasn’t a consensus one. The combatants were “handed over” to the government to initiate the integration and rehabilitation process, but without any verifiable transfer of command and control or an agreement on how many to integrate into the security forces or how to rehabilitate those who choose not to integrate.

Nepal Mediators

Mediators from a village in Pokhara share their experiences, successes, and best practices. Photo by Jon Jamieson.

The extended CA term was also spent finding consensus on roughly 210 contentious provisions of the constitution. A workable consensus was eventually agreed upon for about 170 of those provisions after 11 months of on-and-off negotiations. All provisions that relate to the fundamental principles of the constitution and structures of the state, such as forms of government, model of representation, numbers and boundaries of federal states, and provisions on separation of power were deliberately left untouched, as a decision on these issues would require a compromise on long-propagated political ideologies of the Maoists as well as centrists and conservatives. In short, political contentions on all critical components of the peace process and the political transition are precisely where they were one year ago.

However, such dismal lack of progress has nothing to do with the capacity of the Nepali political parties. After all, these very political parties had, within 18 months of signing a ceasefire agreement in 2006, negotiated a Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), inducted a rebel force into an interim government, and formed an elected CA. The unclear mandate of the 2008 election, which brought the Maoists into the CA as the largest party but without a clear majority and left the liberal parties with some seats but not enough to sway the national politics one way or the other, made indecision and muddling through politically more convenient for parties on both sides of the negotiating table. However, the public is growing less and less accepting of such a lack of delivery, and political parties are taking notice.

As a result, the significance of May 28 is that the “muddling through” that has characterized Nepali politics since the CA process started in 2008 is causing a legitimacy crisis and increasingly domestic and international constituencies are pressuring political parties to act more accountably. The major brunt of this pressure has fallen on the Maoists and for good reason.

To date, the Maoists have not come to terms with the fact that in 2005, they had to abandon an unfinished revolution through a 12-point pact negotiated with the liberal parties to take down a common enemy – a politically ambitious monarch. In 2006, buoyed by a tangible chance for peace, the Nepali people took to the streets and staged a successful mass protest that overthrew the monarchy. Some within the Maoists believed that this was a temporary rest and recuperate stop on their eventual march to a full communist revolution, while others more familiar with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Mao’s failures felt that uprooting a feudal political order and the opportunity to restructure the Nepali state as the largest political party was sufficient.

In liberal political parties, such contentions never amount to a deep moral dilemma. In revolutionary communist parties, this level of strategic confusion is considered seriously corruptive. About four months ago, in what is known as the Palungtar Plenum, the “revolutionary line” won the day and the Maoists decided to conduct a “revolt” to capture the state rather than to focus on the drafting of the new constitution. But a revolt requires public support, and – sensing that the Nepali people had lost their appetite for revolts with abstract goals – two weeks ago, the more pragmatic forces within the Maoists joined hands and “revised” the revolutionary line to focus on the constitution and obligations under the CPA. The Maoists have finally realized that assuming a leadership role in drafting the constitution and completing the peace process is politically more pragmatic than pursuing the elusive dream of a complete communist revolution. This shift in thinking brings the most significant difference to the politics of this May 28 and that of last year’s.

The challenges ahead, however, are significant. The Maoists have yet to convince the other political parties in Nepal (nor its nervous neighbor, India) that they are now ready to seriously engage in the peace process and lead the government and the drafting process. Since a vote on the extension of the CA’s tenure requires a two-thirds majority, they have to get either the regional parties or the liberal Nepali Congress to agree to an extension, even if the deeply split United Marxist Leninists (UML), their current coalition partner, somehow manage to stay loyal to them. The Maoists will not regain trust from any of these parties, including UML, without agreeing to a convincing arrangement that disassociates the party from its 19,600 combatants in the cantonments before May 28. At the same time, there is still a lot of resistance from the hardliners within the party on hasty surrender of the cantonments. One has to hope that a party that ran one of the fastest growing communist insurgencies in the world is at least capable of acting swiftly when it really wants to.

Those of us who have been observing the Nepali peace process up close have never doubted that as the largest party in the CA, the Maoists hold the key to any progress in the peace process. Now that the peace process is almost five years old, and the Nepali public is rapidly running out of patience, the recent transformation in the Maoist thinking, if it is indeed real, finally presents hope even as the peace process stands at its most precarious juncture.

Sagar Prasai is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Nepal. He can be reached at sprasai@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. 

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