Nepal’s Unreconstructed Maoists -By ASHOK. K. MEHTA
After four years of work and $1.6 billion, Nepal should have announced its new constitution at midnight on May 27. The fledgling peace process for the divided country has been saved from failing by 11th hour compromises many times—but not this time. All the political parties are at fault, but the onus lies on the ruling Maoists: the very party whose key mission in a decade-long civil war was a new constitution.
At risk is the country’s much-vaunted peace process, which has aimed to democratize the country and bring the rebel Maoists into the mainstream. Consider how far Nepal has come: A Hindu constitutional monarchy became a secular, democratic republic and peacefully absorbed Maoist rebels into its army. Even the new constitution was 90% finished. The United Nations, which had a three-year mission to oversee elections and monitor that Maoist rebels laid down arms, often cites the process as a great success.
But on May 27, instead of delivering the final constitution, the Maoists dissolved the Constituent Assembly (CA), which was writing that document, and ordered elections for a new CA in November. Some Nepalese allege that both steps are illegal, according to the interim constitution of 2007—which, without a new document, is the law of the land.
The reasons for the sudden death of the CA are unclear, but most likely, are related to a growing split within the party. The more moderate Maoist group, led by Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, favors consolidation of power through democratic means, but is opposed by Mohan Baidya’s hard-line faction. Mr. Dahal, who goes by the nom de guerre Prachanda, may have had the CA dissolved fearing that the constitution’s passage would trigger a mutiny from Mr. Baidya.
On surface, the Maoists seem to disagree about the constitution because of how it restructures the country’s federal system, including the number and boundaries of provinces. The old system gave preferential treatment to upper castes. Mr. Dahal is arguing that the constitution should be ethnicity-sensitive so that lower castes, such as the Jan Jatis (ethnic tribals) and Dalits (untouchables per the Hindu caste system) who form the core of Maoist support, get constitutional recognition. The historically disadvantaged Madhesis, 48% of the population, also want their rights guaranteed. But Mr. Baidya also supports some version of these ideas.The real difference is deeper. Mr. Dahal at least recognizes the realities of power, and wants good ties with neighboring India as well as for the Maoist rebels to fully integrate with the professional army. Mr. Baidya doesn’t like either. He believes power grows out of the barrel of a gun, his only solution being revolt.
That means that in the event of a split, Maoist combatants who owe allegiance to the Baidya faction, and only recently integrated into the army, could desert. This would add to the risk of street violence during the November elections. Even without a split, the Maoists possess a standing force called the Young Communists League which is akin to a paramilitary and has refused to disband.
Rogue Maoist combatants would contribute to an already chaotic election season. The Nepali public is bitterly disappointed by the failure of the new constitution. Street protests and counter-protests are becoming commonplace. Opinion polls, to the extent that they’re reliable, suggest that most people blame the Maoists.
No political party today stands united and ready for November elections. Since the Maoists won a plurality (but not a clear majority) of seats in the CA in 2008, many parties have fragmented significantly. The Madhesi parties have splintered from four into as many as 13 parties.
The net result is that Nepal is staring at political uncertainty, legal limbo and the prospect of violence in the run-up to a new election. Nepali politics could return to an era of suspicion and distrust in which the Maoists benefit from the chaos.
While commentators are busy eyeing the election, the country is missing its chance to stop serious political backsliding. The Maoist government has recently sought the help of the Nepal Army, which says it will act according to the constitution. Yet bringing in the army could ruin the transition to a civilian democracy.
Politicians should instead focus on preserving the gains already made in the peace process, and the least contentious way would be to restore the CA for a limited period to complete the constitution. This can only happen if President Ram Baran Yadav declares a state of emergency, for which he needs broad political consensus, including from the Maoists.
This is also a good time to reconsider how easy it is for Maoist insurgents to reintegrate within democratic societies. International observers held up Nepal as an example in this regard, including for India, which faces its own Maoist insurgency. But it’s clear that some Maoists see opposing the state as their inveterate goal.
The collapse of the constitution-writing process is a serious setback to democratization, but not an insurmountable one. Forming a national unity government is the first step to counter the possibility that the Maoists will keep ruling by executive fiat, in the absence of a proper constitution. The alternative will be political chaos.
Mr. Mehta is a retired major general from the Gorkha Regiment of the Indian Army and founding member of India’s Defence Planning Staff.