Nepal constituent assembly elections suspended amid turmoil
A World to Win News Service.
With the indefinite postponement of the elections for a Constituent Assembly, the political crisis that began when the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) walked out of the interim government in September has sharply intensified.
The election of a Constituent Assembly to decide the country’s form of government and the future of the monarchy was the centrepiece of the November 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. That agreement brought a ceasefire in the people’s war and eventually took CPN(M) into an interim government in early 2007. Originally the election was expected shortly after that. Eventually it was scheduled for last June and then postponed until 22 November. This date, too, fell by the wayside in early October when the CPN(M) put forward two demands: that the monarchy be abolished immediately, before the election of the Constituent Assembly, and that elections to that Assembly be held on a proportional basis to ensure the representation of the country’s oppressed nationalities and others. While the party expressed its wish that the CA be held on time, it said unless a “special session of parliament takes a decision on the declaration of a republic and a fully proportional election procedure,” holding an election on 22 November would be impossible.
The party’s decision to take this path came at its Fifth Expanded Central Committee meeting in August. In September its ministers resigned from the government. At a mass rally held in Kathmandu, a CPN(M) leader declared, “We will struggle for the purpose of having a real election, not this hypocritical drama.” “We will not accept the code of conduct announced by the election commission and we will disrupt all ongoing election plans,” Baburam Bhattarai told the mass demonstration. “We will launch peaceful protests, but we have the right to counter those who try to suppress our peaceful programme.”
Most political figures in Nepal recognized that the elections – at least thoroughly nationwide elections widely seen as legitimate – could not be held in the face of this kind of opposition. On 5 October, the CPN(M) and the parties active in the former parliament under the monarchy jointly asked the Prime Minister to put off the election until an as-yet unspecified date.
Then Nepal’s House of Parliament convened a special session to consider the CPN(M)’s two demands. The Nepali Congress Party, the dominant political party in recent Nepali history, its two rival wings now reunited, said it would agree to the abolition of the monarchy, but only after the CA election, and that it would not accept proportional representation. The UML (Communist Party of Nepal United Marxist-Leninist), the other leading parliamentary party, called for a compromise: declaring a republic (and therefore the end of the monarchy) immediately, but leaving the declaration’s implementation until the election of the CA. The session was suspended for several days for negotiations. They evidently ended in an impasse, because when parliament reconvened, after only three minutes it again adjourned until 29 October, after the end of Nepal’s religious festival season.
In other words, with the country “at the frontier of a big revolutionary possibility and an awful accident”, as CPN(M) Chairman Prachanda said in his report on the August meeting (www.cpnm.org), a parliament that has done very little in its existence thought it best to do absolutely nothing, because any decisive decisions and changes in the basic political scenario are going to be made elsewhere.
Some observers conclude that one way out is an army coup – either openly in favour of the king or in the more neutral guise of restoring “stability”. BBC, for instance, opines, “The king’s standing, from a position of rock-bottom unpopularity, is beginning to pick up… Many people [presumably this includes important members of the British ruling class BBC executives represent] have begun to talk about Nepal entering an era of either ultra-right (military or military-backed) or ultraleftist (Maoist) dictatorship. They are not ruling out bloodshed between the army and the Maoists, who have concentrated a large number of their members in Kathmandu… [A] final showdown between the army and the Maoists in Kathmandu is more likely than ever.” …………
This threat of a coup is one very real and grave possibility – real enough so that on 22 October army Chief of Staff Rookmangud Katawal had to “vehemently deny” “the rumours – and allegation by the Maoists” that the army is preparing one, according to neppalnews.com. It is also noteworthy – and alarming – that BBC didn’t even bother to condemn the idea of such a crime.
There are reasons why the army hasn’t sought a “showdown” so far, although they may not necessarily apply in the future. After all, it failed to defeat the Maoist-led people’s war, and to put down the April 2006 mass upsurge in the streets that forced the king to recall the parliament he had sacked. Not only King Gyanendra but the U.S., UK and other imperialist powers who have a hand in the country, as well as the Indian ruling classes, feared, at that time at least, that brute force alone could not save the regime and the economic and social system it represented – one that has kept the people enslaved and the country under foreign control. That is why they allowed the peace agreement to be signed in the first place.
A report by the International Crisis Group, the Belgium-based organization led by former Western government leaders and their counsellors, tries to take these complexities into account and put forward a different solution.
The status quo in Nepal is at best, “fragile”, the ICG warns. (“Nepal’s Fragile Peace Process”, 28 September, crisisgroup.org) Initial popular support for the interim government is fading, to a large degree because it has done very little to change life for most Nepalese.
Nothing has better demonstrated this fragility than events in the Madesh (Terai) plains along the Indian border, the focal point of violent unrest in the last few months, led by groups demanding changes to the interim constitution and a federal republic based on autonomy for the region. Much of this has been encouraged by reactionaries linked to the monarchy and forces in India seeking to discredit and possibly topple the interim government and particularly to attack the CPN(M) for failing to obtain this demand as it had pledged. In the most notorious incident, a mob assaulted Maoists in the town of Gaur last March, killing 27 people. The US ambassador and Indian political figures all but applauded. The Terai is said to be home to about half of Nepal’s population, including people of various ethnicities, and its agriculture makes it crucial to the country’s economy.
Other bitter protests have come from similarly excluded groups, like other minority nationalities, Dalits (‘untouchables”) and women, none of whom have experienced any of the basic change in their oppression they have been hoping for.
Then there is the issue of the justice system. The ICG comments, “Despite the CPA commitments and lip-service to justice, political expediency has consistently taken priority. During the transitional period, the government’s failure to address a widespread lack of confidence in the judiciary and to tackle the legacy of impunity has harmed its legitimacy.”
Since the peace agreement, the report admits, only the Maoists have really been held accountable to the provisions of the peace agreement, especially in terms of disarming the People’s Liberation Army, while the other parties, parliament and other organs of government and the army have done little to live up to it.
One of these “failures to deliver”, the report says, has been the unkept agreement to provide adequate food, shelter and funding for members of the CPN(M)-led People’s Liberation Army who entered into special camps and put their weapons under UN supervision under the terms of the peace agreement. (Recently parliament finally agreed to release funds for three months salary to PLA members in the cantonments.)
Another, one of the most notorious, is the failure to hold the promised official inquiry into the fate of those “disappeared” by the armed forces during the ten-year-long people’s war. The government has also failed to meet the demands for an investigation of the massacres of unarmed demonstrators by the monarchy and the army during the April 2006 popular upsurge. The latter investigation, even more than one into the “disappeared”, would further expose and infuriate the army leadership, since the current head of the army is widely considered responsible for the killings.
The way, in the ICG’s eyes, to put an end to the “fragility”, regain the regime’s “legitimacy” and save the “peace process”? One obstacle remains the Maoists’ “behaviour”, especially since “they have not dropped the idea of revolutionary change (although they say they want a ‘peaceful revolution’)”. The report also puts much of the blame on the “mainstream parties” for failing to “deliver on the deals that have been reached” in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and “address reasonable Maoist concerns”. “The ball is in the government’s court. The government and its constituent parties should sustain efforts to bring the Maoists back on board…”
The IGC’s concerns for putting the “peace process” “back on track” and ensuring the holding of elections seems to have been shared, according to news reports, by delegations of the seven EU ambassadors based in Kathmandu, and the chief of the UN Mission to Nepal, which called on the leaders of all the main parties in early October.
But this is only one side of the IGC’s recommendations, and of the approach being taken by the foreign power centres deeply involved in thus process. The report goes on to unhesitatingly reaffirm the army’s continued centrality to any outcome it considers acceptable. “Powerful international players, primarily India and the U.S., still see the army as the last defence against a possible Maoist take-over or collapse of government; their determination to guard against any immediate reforms has emboldened conservative commanders.”
The army has always been closely tied with the monarchy, which is why knocking off Gyanendra’s crown has proved such a thorny question. The king has lost his official functions and the word “Royal” has fallen off Royal Nepal Army insignia, but, as the report points out, “it remains autonomous, beyond any meaningful democratic control and deeply suspicious of politics from which it feels marginalized, its values threatened.” The ICG continues, “Given the political flux and weak security situation, there would be no benefits in destabilising the largest security force.”
Yet the army alone, the ICG cautions, may not be able to provide a stable pro-imperialist government. “The need to address popular demands for change will not go away,” the report concludes.
The task the imperialists have set for the “peace process” is to undo the people’s war, its gains and its material, political and ideological consequences. They need to rig up a system of government – and convince some sufficient minimum number of people that there is no realistic alternative to it – so that with a few changes, nothing basic will change. The same army that served them so well – the heart of state power – would continue to exist, to protect the social system, in the end, from the people.
But this state, social system and world order is exactly what the CPN(M) set out to overthrow when it launched the people’s war. That, really, is the heart of the matter. Further, these “popular demands for change” that “will not go away” were precisely what fuelled that war.
The country has drifted into uncertain and turbulent waters. The next weeks and months may well prove crucial.
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