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Nepal: need for workable compromise

Nepal's Newars, an ethnic community, participate in a torch rally a day ahead of a general strike in Katmandu, Nepal, Tuesday, April 26, 2011. The Newars have called for a strike on Wednesday demanding federalism under the new constitution and promulgating it within the deadline of May 28. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)   | Photo Credit: Gemunu Amarasinghe

With the term of Nepal's Constituent Assembly (CA) expiring on May 28, and the Constitution nowhere in sight, Nepali politicians are engaged in hectic negotiations. The big question is whether the CA's term will be extended again and, if so, on what terms.

The Jhalanath Khanal-led government, supported by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Upendra Yadav-led Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum (Nepal), has proposed an amendment to the interim Constitution, extending the CA's term by a year. The government's logic is straightforward — there is no alternative to drafting the statute through the CA.

The opposition Nepali Congress (NC) and the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) — comprising three Madhesi parties — have said they will not support the extension in the present situation. They are backed by a splinter of Mr. Yadav's MJF, which broke ranks with the original party on Monday. A re-energised NC has claimed that a Constitution cannot be written ‘even in 10 years' if Maoists do not deliver on the peace process. It has asked the Maoists to detach the party from the combatants and hand over their weapons to the government, and demanded the government's resignation as pre-conditions for supporting an extension of the CA.

The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) is divided — Prime Minister Khanal is with the Maoists, while his rivals, the former Prime Minister, Madhav Nepal, and senior leader K.P. Oli have backed the NC in its demand for the government's resignation.

India has thrown its weight behind the opposition. It has been uncomfortable with the present ‘left government,' and is suspicious of the Maoists' intentions. It would like the peace process to conclude on the NA (Nepal Army) and the NC's terms, to “maintain the professional and apolitical character of the army.” It is also understood to have backed the split in the MJF.

But it is essentially the NC and the Maoists who are engaged in a complex game of brinksmanship. The NC believes that the present ‘left alliance' represents an ‘attack on democracy.' It is working under the assumption that since the Maoists need the CA the most to preserve their status as the biggest party, they will give in to all the conditions. The Maoists are willing to make concessions but feel the NC is bluffing and will back the extension since there is no democratic and sustainable alternative. The end of the CA would also mean the end of the 2006 political framework, a risk the Maoists believe the NC may not want to take.

Peace process

Four months ago, the Nepal Army presented a concept paper on integration. To break the impasse, it proposed the creation of a mixed force under a new NA directorate. This would include Maoist combatants and the NA, the Armed Police Force and the Nepal Police personnel in the ratio of 35:35:15:15. The core mandate of the force would include industrial security, forest protection, relief and development work, with most personnel unarmed. Around 4000 combatants could be integrated, on an individual basis, according to standard norms with a degree of flexibility on age and education.

Last week, the Maoist party accepted the NA's proposed modality of integration. NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba, who leads a party committee on peace process, also announced that the army's proposal was positive. But there are differences on the specifics. The Maoists insist on group entry of their combatants; they have asked for the force to have combat functions, and would like it to include 50 per cent Maoist combatants and 50 per cent NA personnel. While it will take time to thrash out the differences, an in-principle agreement on the modality is within reach.

On integration, the NC has suggested a maximum of 4000 combatants, and the UML has said 5000 fighters could be accommodated. The Maoists have publicly asked for the integration of 10,000 of their combatants, while privately saying 7000-8000 is their ‘bottom line.' The NC has also asked the Maoists to regroup combatants into those who will be integrated and those opting for rehabilitation before May 28. While the Maoists had earlier agreed to do so, actual physical separation of the combatants in three days seems unlikely. At best, after an agreement on numbers, there could be symbolic regrouping within the same cantonments and camps where the fighters currently reside.

To feel reassured, however, NC leaders say they want to see “real action, not just promises.” They have demanded that the combatants be brought under the all-party special committee effectively, and the Maoists hand over their weapons. (The weapons are currently stored in containers in cantonments, with the Maoists possessing the key.) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda' has said this would be tantamount to ‘surrender;' reports suggest that the dogmatic faction within the party and sections of the PLA are opposed to the handover of weapons in the absence of a broad deal.

Power-sharing

The other aim of the NC, the Oli-Nepal faction within the UML, and Madhesi parties is to force the government's resignation and break the Jhalanath Khanal-Prachanda pact. Mr. Khanal obviously wants to continue — he had earlier thought he could push an extension with a two-thirds majority in the house, but opposition from within the UML and the MJF split have diluted this possibility. Mr. Prachanda has told the NC that such a condition is not right. But the NC argues that the Maoists did the same when they asked for Madhav Nepal's resignation last year before the CA's extension.

What complicates the issue is the uncertainty over the shape and leadership of the next government. Both the NC and the Maoists will stake a claim, and neither side has enough incentive to back the other. Within the NC, former Prime Minister Deuba and parliamentary party leader Ram Chandra Poudel feel they have a rightful claim over the leadership.

While some NC leaders say they will support Mr. Prachanda if he takes the peace process to an ‘irreversible point,' others in the party are opposed to handing over leadership to the Maoists. If the Maoists have to be supported in order to break the present alliance, they would prefer Baburam Bhattarai to Mr. Prachanda. But this reduces the chairman's incentives in deserting Mr. Khanal. Without creating the basis for a unity government, the ruling alliance argues that there could well be a repeat of last year when Madhav Nepal continued as caretaker for seven months. But the pressure on Mr. Khanal to make way is increasing by the day.

End-game?

In the next few days, Nepali politicians have to arrive at a consensus on such crucial issues. The NC's redlines are clear and, as the biggest party and engine of the ruling alliance, the onus lies primarily on the Maoists to bring the opposition on board.

But while bargaining hard is legitimate and understandable, the NC and its primary external backer, India, should remember that the end of the CA will invite a major political and constitutional vacuum. There will be no elected institution left in the country. There will be no mechanism to settle political disputes, and confrontation and violence could well increase. Those who think of the CA only as a source of strength for the Maoists are mistaken — the CA gives the former rebels space but it also ties them within a democratic framework. Some suggest elections as a way out but this is a mere ruse. What do you hold polls for; under which framework; will Maoists be on board; will the NC and the UML participate if the peace process is not concluded; and why will the Maoists co-operate in the peace process if their agenda of change through the CA is dismantled?

The next few days will offer an opportunity to Nepal's political class to re-engineer the political consensus, missing since the 2008 elections. If not common dreams, common fears about a possible vacuum should force them to a workable compromise on the peace process, power sharing, and extension of CA to work out other contentious constitutional issues. India can do its bit by playing a supportive, not a polarising, role.


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