Nepal: 'Democrats' and the struggle for democracy

Issue 

Nepal's political stalemate of sorts continues.

While political parties move to try to form a new government, about 300,000 people marched in Kathmandu (which as a population of 700,000) on May 17. The protest supported the demand of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) that the military be subordinated to the civilian government.

The stalemate has existed since May 3, when the UCPN-M resigned from the coalition government it had led. This occurred after the armed forces' high command repeatedly defied the civilian government, formed out of an elected constituent assembly.

The creation of the assembly, long demanded by the Maoists, marked the end of Nepal's centuries-old feudal monarchy. One of its first measures was to declare Nepal a republic.

The military command refused to implement key parts of the peace accords that ended the decade-long armed conflict with the Maoists. In response, the Maoists tried to sack the chief of army staff, General Kul Bahadur Katawal.

Katawal refused to recognise his sacking, the right-wing president overturned the decision despite lacking the constitutional basis to do so and the Maoists' coalition partners failed to endorse Katawal's removal.

The UCPN-M responded by resigning from the government, while continuing to insist Katawal should be sacked so the peace process and the attempt to build a new democratic Nepal could go forward.

The UCPN-M is insisting on the implementation of the parts of the peace accords that aim to reform the military, which was armed and trained by the US and responsible for serious human rights abuses. The agreements included a plan to integrate into the military thousands of Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA) fighters.

The political parties opposing the Maoists are also refusing to back down. A "Democratic Alliance" has been formed by the former Maoist coalition partner Communist Party of Nepal-United-Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), the right-wing Nepali Congress and an array of smaller parties ranging from hardcore royalists, ethnic chauvinists and some left groups.

This alliance claims to have thwarted an attempt by the Maoists to "capture the state and establish a one-party authoritarian dictatorship". This is despite the commitment by the Maoists to a multi-party democratic system.

The UCPN-M has 40% of assembly seats, more than the NC and CPN-UML combined. With the tenuous support of nearly two dozen smaller groups, the alliance has the numbers to form a new government without the Maoists.

However, the assembly has been unable to function since May 4. Maoist deputies have disrupted proceedings by chanting slogans and blockading the rostrum.

Outside the assembly, there have been daily street protests.

The Democratic Alliance is riddled with limitations and contradictions. It has no political basis at all. To get a majority, the alliance has had to cobble together a coalition of 22 different parties from all directions.

If this coalition does form a government, it will be unable to function properly. There is no common, or even predominant, position on any issue.

Nepal faces a large number of challenges as it seeks to replace the monarchy with a republic: state restructuring, economic development, creating a new constitution, establishing the role of religion and the peace process, among others. This coalition is dependent on groups with fundamentally opposing views on these issues.

The only common point is that these groups are not the UCPN-M.

How can this alliance be democratic when its sole basis is to exclude the party that won nearly 1 million votes more than its nearest competitor in elections last year?

This is made even more ridiculous by the alliance's candidate for prime minister — the CPN-UML's Madhav Kumar Nepal. He was beaten in the first-past-the-post part of the assembly elections not once but twice — by Maoists.

These "democrats" are seeking government to protect Katawal — a general who said in 2002 that "enlightened despotism is preferable to chaotic democracy; the masses require protection from themselves".

But Nepal doesn't exist in a vacuum, and world events affect the situation.

Some recent events to Nepal's south have given the elite, which backs the anti-Maoist alliance, newfound courage in the struggle to protect existing privileges and power from the horde of impoverished Maoist supporters.

The defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), which waged an armed national liberation struggle against the Sri Lankan state, has encouraged the Nepalese elite. The LTTE was once the most powerful guerrilla army in the world, running a virtual parallel state in the north and east of the island.

While most of the world looks on in horror at Sri Lanka's massacres of Tamil civilians and subsequent humanitarian crisis, the Nepalese elite see inspiration for their own political problems. It provides hope for the potential crushing of the Maoist mass movement.

As a result of the mass pro-democracy uprising in 2006, combined with the success of the Maoist-led armed struggle, the elite is trapped in a process to create a "new Nepal" that it can't control.

It is desperately seeking to tilt the balance of power back in its favour. Close to taking back control over the government, the elite will seek to redefine the interim constitution and the peace process. For instance, the NC is already calling for the PLA, now confined to United Nations-run camps, to be reduced to 4000 fighters.

The Maoists are facing a serious struggle with significant risks.

The first objective of the Maoists is to protect the democracy, peace process and interim constitution. These are gains many died to achieve.

It is important for the Maoists to resist provocations. The elite have been trying to provoke the Maoists into withdrawing from the peace process and the assembly.

The peace process and constituent assembly (which was a Maoist demand) are very popular. If the UCPN-M turned its back on them, it would lose significant support.

After coming first in the elections, the Maoists have the political legitimacy. When the anti-Maoist alliance goes outside the constitution to achieve its anti-people aims, it draws popular anger.

The UCPN-M is likely to end its current disruption of the assembly, thus allowing a new government to be formed. However, it will seek to pass a binding resolution that the presidential decree over-ruling Katawal's sacking was unconstitutional and should be revoked.

On the street, the protests have been getting larger — and May 17 was the peak so far. There are rumours of a banda (general strike) in the campaign to win civilian supremacy over the military.

One thing that has changed since this latest crisis began is the further growth in public support for the Maoists. The situation is becoming more polarised and people are getting angrier.

[Read Ben Peterson's on Nepalese politics.]