Nepal: General State of Uncertainty (The Economist)
By Stephen Mauldin at May 11, 2009
THE immediate cause of the fall of Nepal’s government, led by former Maoist rebels, was a bid to remove the conservative army chief. When the cabinet fired General Rookmangud Katawal, alleging that he had defied civilian control and breached the terms of a 2006 peace deal, the Maoists were deserted by their coalition allies. Their defeat was complete when the president reinstated the general, prompting the prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (also known as “Prachanda”), to resign on Monday May 4th.
Trouble has been brewing since the Maoists surprised everyone by winning elections a year ago after fighting a ten-year insurgency which ended with a peace agreement in 2006. That accord called for the integration of some former Maoist fighters, who are currently sitting in UN-supervised camps, into the national army. It also contained provisions for a new constitution to be written by the assembly elected last year. Both those aspirations now look remote, and with them any prospect for a final resolution to the conflict.
The army used to demonstrate its conservative nationalism with loyalty to the monarchy but the institution was abolished after last year’s elections. With the king gone it still stands as a bulwark against political radicalism. General Katawal was sacked for blocking Maoist integration into his forces, on the grounds that the indoctrinated former guerrillas would politicise the institution and turn Nepal into a communist dictatorship.
In recent months Nepal’s generals have been engaging in politics nakedly, briefing foreign diplomats on alleged Maoist intentions and producing constitutional and policy proposals on issues far beyond security and military matters. The army’s political activism is backed by India, which supported the peace process but now wants a limit on Maoist power.
The anti-Maoist forces also include Nepal’s other political parties, which are still licking their wounds from their electoral drubbing. The peace process was supposed to be based on consensus, with all parties co-operating in writing a new constitution. But after coming a poor second place in the elections the Nepali Congress party refused to join the government and has been staunchly opposing any policy for which the Maoists might claim credit.
The centrist, but deceptively named, Unified Marxist-Leninist party joined the government but always seemed in a hurry to leave—it may now lead the new administration. Ethnic parties from the south are likely to heed India’s wishes while extracting concessions in return for their support.
The rest of the parties, supported by wealthy Nepalese and the media, have accused the Maoists of high-handedness and latent authoritarianism. Their anger is party justified by the thuggish antics of the Maoist’s youth wing, the Young Communist League, and the power it exerts through allied trade unions.
But hostility to the Maoists, sometimes bordering on hysteria, also looks exaggerated. The opposition and urban elites benefit from the social and economic hierarchy the Maoists say they want to change. Meanwhile, economic policies such as loans for the poor, enacted during the Maoists’ brief administration, have proved widely popular.
With their own parties weak and unpopular, and the Maoists formidably well organised nationally, the various “anti-Maoists” were all too happy for the army to step in on their side. They were also able to prevail on the president, who was appointed to the supposedly ceremonial role by parliament, to countermand the cabinet’s order to sack General Katawal.
Luckily, no one seems to want a return to open conflict. But the anti-Maoists are fractious and diverse. They also lack ideas or a strategy to govern. Forming a coalition, much less leading the country, will be difficult. General Katawal and the army are now likely to play a significant role behind the scenes, which bodes ill for democracy in Nepal.
The Maoists for their part are likely to use their powerful national organisation, trade unions and gangs of heavies, to give the new government a rough ride. They also have 38% of the seats in parliament, twice as many as the nearest rival. Writing a new constitution requires a two-thirds majority but the consensus the peace process required has been abandoned, and with it any chance of stability.