Nepali parties cannot afford to waste a single day if they wish to make the Constitiuent Assembly's term extension meaningful. The Maoists have to implement their promises.

By striking a deal at the last minute to extend the term of the Constituent Assembly (CA) by three months, Nepal's political parties averted a major constitutional crisis, and saved the only democratically elected institution in the country.

But the real challenge begins now. In the next 90 days, parties have to form a new national unity government, arrive at a detailed agreement on the integration and rehabilitation of former Maoist combatants and begin implementing the process, and prepare the first draft of the constitution. And they have to do all this simultaneously, since there is no luxury of time. If parties fail to show progress, they will find it almost impossible to ask for another extension on August 28.

Five-point agreement

The CA's term was extended on the basis of a five-point agreement signed between the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist). The United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF), comprising five Tarai parties, did not participate in the house vote since their demand that Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal resign immediately was not fulfilled. They however welcomed the CA extension.

The final deal stated that Mr. Khanal would resign to make way for a national government — but it did not specify the time-frame. The opposition has already demanded the government's resignation as a prelude to creating national consensus, while Mr. Khanal has said he will quit only after there is national consensus.

The government's supporters argue that resignation without an alternative would lead to a repeat of last year's experience when Mr. Madhav Nepal stayed on as caretaker Prime Minister for seven months. All parties would also end up concentrating on re-engineering power alignments rather than getting the peace process completed.

But there is a powerful counter-argument. If Mr. Khanal does not resign, it will increase mistrust. The NC, Madhesi parties, and even sections of Mr. Khanal's UML will see it as a betrayal since this is already enshrined in the written text. This in turn could limit their incentives in cooperating with the Maoists to work out a detailed agreement on the future of the Maoist army. After the CA polls, the governments led by Maoist chairman Mr. Prachanda and Mr. Khanal excluded the NC while Mr. Madhav Nepal's government left the Maoists out — all three failed. The lesson is that the Maoists and NC, the two forces who conceptualised the 12-point agreement, have to work together.

There is a way out, which links up power sharing and the question of leadership with the peace process, which in current discourse is defined largely in terms of the future of Maoist combatants. As head of Special Committee for supervision, integration and rehabilitation of the Maoist combatants, Mr. Khanal could spend the next few days in facilitating a detailed deal on the peace process. This will allow him to claim credit for taking the process forward. He could then commit to resign within one month, while other stakeholders work out the shape of the new unity government.

In the run-up to May 28, NC president Sushil Koirala told Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda' that the NC would support the Maoist leadership if the party detached itself from arms and combatants. Over the next 30 days, if Maoists do take “irreversible” steps in the peace process, the NC should feel reassured enough in supporting a Maoist prime minister — in return, it could keep powerful ministries like home and defence. There could also be an in-built rotational clause which would allow the NC to take leadership when the country moves in for the next elections. Alternately, if the Maoists do not take the required steps on integration which would win the trust of other parties by June-end, the former rebels should accept an NC prime minister. The same rotational principle could apply — after completing the peace process, the Maoists could get leadership of government while the constitution is promulgated and the next polls are held. The Madhesi front also needs to be included in the next government.

Given that there are multiple claimants to prime-ministership within each party, once the principle of who gets to lead first is decided, it would be best that parties resolve the leadership question internally. Neither the NC nor the Maoists should tell each other who to pick from their respective parties.

A detailed peace deal

Even as a new power-sharing deal is being worked out, there has to be simultaneous movement on the peace process. Past agreements have couched this issue in ambiguous terms — which allowed all sides to define it in their own ways. But in the pre-CA extension negotiations, parties did talk about specifics of integration and rehabilitation of combatants.

The Maoists, in particular, have a role in generating momentum on this issue. Five years after entering the peace process, they need to feel secure. Efforts to isolate them from the power structure have failed, and Maoists should stop treating the PLA as an “insurance policy.” In a way, their position that constitution writing and peace process should move simultaneously has prevailed till now, but the peace process must end before constitution promulgation. And for this, the process needs to begin immediately. The Maoists should take advantage of the relative flexibility of the other parties, and the growing marginalisation of the ‘no integration' line advocated earlier by the right wing in the Nepal Army (NA), NC and UML.

In the next two weeks, the Special Committee will deploy monitors to the seven cantonments and 21 satellite camps, representing the state's greater control over the Maoist army. On the modality of integration, all parties, including the Maoists, have accepted the NA's proposal of creating a mixed force under an NA directorate. The NA and NC suggested 4,000 combatants could be integrated while Maoists are pushing for 8-10,000 fighters. A compromise could be around the 6-7,000 mark. But parties also have to bridge differences on four other contentious issues — norms for entry; rank harmonisation; mandate of the new mixed force; and rehabilitation packages which will include a “golden handshake.”

Once there is a detailed deal, survey teams will go to the cantonments to ask the combatants about their preferences, and judge whether those wanting integration meet the criteria. This would lead to regrouping into two distinct groups of those to be integrated and those opting for rehabilitation, and the discharge of those fighters who wish a voluntary exit and/or shift to Maoist party work. The Maoists have also agreed to end a dual security system (where leaders are protected both by state security personnel and People's Liberation Army), hand over weapons meant for protection of leaders, and regularise illegal party vehicle number plates.

In the best case scenario, this is the maximum the parties can achieve on the “fundamentals” of the peace process in three months. But these steps would play a major role in trust-building, and would provide the basis to ask for more time to conclude the next phase of actual integration into security organs.

Similarly, to arrive at an integrated first draft of the statute, there has to be serious and sustained discussions in the Constitutional Committee, and its sub-committee on dispute resolution led by Mr. Prachanda — especially on the form of government and electoral system. On federalism, the government is thinking of finally forming the constitutionally-mandated State Restructuring Commission, but Madhesi parties have expressed reservations fearing this would undermine the CA. An inclusive SRC can be set up, but its recommendations will not be of a binding nature which should reassure smaller ethnic and regional parties that they can still push their agenda in the CA. If parties build enough common ground for the first draft, there will be legitimate ground to extend the CA's term one final time for public consultations, thrashing out differences on the remaining few issues, and final constitution promulgation.

This is probably the last chance Nepali politicians have to institutionalise a federal democratic republic within the current political framework. If they adopt rigid positions, and drag their feet, it will be very difficult to salvage the process three months down the road. And parties then will have no one but themselves to blame.

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