Peace process independent of statute work: PM
via REPUBLICA: Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, who is also the head of the Special Committee, has decided to immediately begin the process of sending home the combatants opting for voluntary retirement and completing the process in the next 12 days, and then moving ahead with the integration process.
The constitution drafting has come to a standstill, and according to media reports there have been some exercises for changing the government to bring in a national consensus government. Bhattarai talked to Republica´s Post B Basnet and Madhav Dhungel in this context. Excerpts:
Immediately after you were elected prime minister, you promised to prioritize peace, constitution, good governance and economic prosperity along with a relief package for the people. Five months on, how do you evaluate your performance?
Yes, following my election to the helm on August 28 by the legislature-parliament, I had stated after doing some rational thinking that the task of this government would be peace, constitution, good governance and economic prosperity along with relief to the people. Afterwards I modified things a bit and set my priority on peace, constitution, good governance and economic prosperity. I have put in my best efforts for the achievement of my goal.
But you did not achieve anything substantial.
You have got to be ambitious. As poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota stated: “The only objective worth taking up is to touch the moon.” Without setting a lofty ambition, you won´t achieve anything important. In fact, the stalled peace process has received momentum after I took over at the helm. The categorization process for Maoist combatants is over. Similarly, we are bidding adieu from January 31 to those opting for voluntary retirement and are subsequently taking the process of integration forward. There are ups and downs in the process.
The subcommittee under the Constitutional Committee (CC) has also garnered consensus on many issues, and discussions on other contentious issues are underway. The long overdue State Restructuring Commission was also formed and it is submitting its report to the government on Monday. As far as the remaining two agendas – good governance and economic prosperity – are concerned, I have launched some immediate relief packages. But we have not been able to focus on these issues. A detailed plan for good governance and economic prosperity was launched on January 25. We think the move will definitely make people feel the change.
Will the task of sending home those opting for voluntary retirement begin on schedule? Your party chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, has stated that he will not empty the cantonments without the parties reaching consensus on governance system.
Definitely! Rest assured. In fact, that was not a condition (the party set). We could have made things worse. We had stated that it would be better if the integration process and the task of sending home those opting for voluntary retirement moved simultaneously. Since more combatants than the agreed number have opted for integration, we said it would be better to settle the issue before sending home those choosing voluntary retirement. It was not a condition per se.
Do you have the full support of the party leadership for sending the combatants home?
There is no point taking the process ahead without the support of the party. Any political leader, especially a communist one, works with the full support of the party. This is a general principle.
When will you wrap up the process of sending home the combatants choosing voluntary retirement?
We estimate that the process will take 11 to 13 days from the starting date. After bidding them adieu, we will hold some talks on the rank harmonization of commanders and a bridge course for the combatants. And then take the integration process ahead.
Is it true that your party has demanded the position of chief or deputy chief of the Nepal Army Directorate?
We have already agreed on the formation of a directorate that will have participation from Maoist combatants. If there is representation of the combatants at the policy-making level, which is called headquarters or directorate, that will create an environment of trust for completing the process. Without that, we may not be able to create a conducive environment. So it will be better to represent both sides at the directorate
When will the contentious issues of system of governance and state restructuring be settled?
There are some important issues including system of governance, state restructuring and electoral system. There is a calendar of events to settle these issues by Sunday, and the parties are holding discussions for a consensus. If the issues are not settled, they could be transferred to the House and consensus sought later.
Will not the process of endorsing the issues for now through a majority vote complicate matters? Will it not increase the chances of derailing the process?
I have also been for consensus on the major issues from the very beginning. But the Maoists alone cannot make that possible. The Nepali Congress (NC) in particular has clung to the same old parliamentary model, though the other political parties are flexible on the issue. I believe both sides will backtrack from their respective stances and find a middle point.
What will be the middle ground?
As we are adopting federalism, we will definitely give substantial powers to the local governments. So it will be better to adopt a system of direct election of the president for a strong and stable government. I was the coordinator of the committee formed to draft our election manifesto during the CA election, and we had floated direct election of the president. As a student of political economy, I think we cannot develop the national economy without a stable government. So we have to go for direct election of the president.
We also cannot reach an agreement if each of the parties sticks to its own demand. So, the last phase of discussions is focused on a mixed model of popularly-elected president and a parliament-elected prime minister who will share power. Some have also floated direct election of the prime minister. But the model is not so much in practice and I don´t think it will be appropriate for Nepal.
There have been concerns that the system you have proposed will lead to regime crisis due to tussle for power between the parliament-elected prime minister and directly elected president?
The system is working well in France; it is also in practice in Sri Lanka. So, it is not a model that doesn´t work. There are challenges in every system. What we need is a stable government that can take important decisions.
There must be constitutional checks and balances to stop a president from turning into an arbitrary ruler. We can formulate mechanisms to prevent a president from becoming despotic.
It will take time for us to adapt to democratic culture as we have passed through feudal, despotic rule. There have been massive changes in the people´s awareness level brought about by the 60-year long (democratic) movement, and decade-long insurgency.
There are problems, but I am optimistic. The way the Nepali society has changed over the years means we can overcome the new ordeals.
Let´s change the topic. To what extent has your party supported you?
I have got the party´s support till date. Due to internal disputes, one political group within our party could not participate in the government. As the party has been united again by the last central committee meeting, we will reshuffle the government to accommodate the political group that is outside the government now.
We will also induct other parties into the government to create an environment for concluding the peace process and constitution drafting.
But there are reports of behind-the-door exercise to change the government. Is it not true?
I don´t see the possibility of change in government leadership. History will not pardon anyone if the next four months are spent changing the government as in the past three or four years. It is not good to play the game of government shuffling.
I believe that there will be a national consensus government under my leadership which will lead the peace and constitution drafting process.
But the leaders of your won party are demanding your resignation.
Such statements are made just for public consumption. The truth is that nobody is in favor of my resignation. Changing the government now will have negative consequences.
Were you not mindful of the consequences of legalizing land transactions done under the arbitration of your party during the conflict period?
It was not an issue to be blown up and used for disrupting the peace and constitution drafting process.
There were informal land transaction papers signed during the conflict period, which were not legally binding. So we had to solve the problem. But that led to unnecessary misunderstanding. The people´s government has already been dissolved, so there is no point in reviving it.
Following the objections from the parties, we had clearly stated that the decision would not be implemented. Let´s make an alternative arrangement to solve the problem of land transaction and I will withdraw the decision. I have already proposed that during a three-party meeting.
The student wing of your own party forced a shutdown against your decision to hike the price of petroleum products. How do you take that?
It is very unfortunate. We import all our petroleum products from abroad and it is our largest import. We imported petroleum products worth Rs 75 billion last year and the figure may reach Rs 100 billion this year. The government provides around Rs 2 billion in subsidy every month, which adds up to Rs 20 billion. How can we run the state, giving Rs 20 billion as subsidy for petroleum products? We could invest that money in a hydro plant generating 100-150 megawatt.
It is unfortunate that there is no tradition of talking to students this way. The price hike led to a kind of competition among the student organizations. The energy of youths should rather be directed toward safeguarding the political achievements made so far and moving on ahead.
The government has filed a petition at the Supreme Court (SC) to reconsider its earlier decision against any CA term extension. What will happen if the CA term is not extended and the peace and constitution drafting process doesn´t move ahead?
We must formulate a constitution within the deadline and I don´t want to guess the consequences of failing to do so. The government has filed the petition not just for the extension of the CA. The SC decision was flawed; it violated the principle of separation of powers and of the jurisdictions of the executive and legislature. So the petition was filed demanding a review.
The members of the State Restructuring Commission nominated by the NC and UML have stated that they will not agree to any decision taken by majority vote and there seem to be sharp differences whether or not the Commission should recommend ethnicity-based federalism. How will the government resolve the dispute?
It is not consensus if you put forward your rigid stance and ask for the others´ consent. There can be an alternative under which the members can send their individual recommendations on contentious issue. We would also like to tell the Commission that the final decision will be taken by the CA. Such disputes are not necessary and I have already said so to the Commission members.
What is your take on ethnicity-based federalism?
Ethnic, regional and linguistic differences and socio-economic capability will be the basis for state restructuring and there is consensus on this. It is already settled that identity will be taken as the primary factor and capability as a secondary factor. There is no need for further debate on the issue.
Is it possible to promulgate the constitution while putting the contentious issues on hold?
Why do that? State restructuring along the lines of federalism will be an integral part of the soon-to-be-drafted constitution. The new constitution should be promulgated in its entirity.