Nepal: Elite revolt threatens democracy

Issue 

Less than two weeks after the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) won by-elections in six constituencies across Nepal, it is facing fresh resistance by the old elite.

The elite is seeking to stop the UCPN-M-led push for a "New Nepal". This has included front-page exposures of a coup plot to overthrow the elected Maoist-led government.

The centre of the storm is the moves, begun on April 19, by the Maoist-led coalition government to remove the Chief of Army Staff Rookmangud Katawal.

This follows a long dispute between the military high command and the elected civilian government. Katawal has refused to implement government instructions.

The April by-elections proved that the program of the Maoists for a New Nepal has popular support.

Occurring in six constituencies that had been left vacant in the past year, these polls took place in a range of areas across the country, encompassing different ethnic groups and where the main political parties are powerful.

This meant the elections gave a good reflection of the political mood. Although only a fraction of people could vote, and the small amount of seats at stake would not affect the balance of power within the parliament, these elections were crucial because of the results were seen as significant in the wider political struggle.

Despite what was widely predicted, rather Maoist support dropping, it increased. This is despite constant media attacks on the government and its current inability to implement most of its program.

The Maoists retained two previously held seats and won a third. The other three seats went to the right-wing Nepalese Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified-Marxist-Leninist and the Madheshi People's Rights Forum.

The popular uprising and a Maoist-led "people's war" brought down Nepal's centuries old monarchy, opening the way for constituent assembly elections one year ago. Against expectations, the Maoists, whose support is based on the poor, wont he largest number of seats.

Since then, right-wing forces, backed by foreign powers, have sought to weaken the Maoist-led government and drive back the momentum for genuine change.

The UCPN-M has deep roots within poor communities. It is linked to the average Nepali through its work in local areas, among youth, women, peasants, and in the trade unions. So far, the campaign by the right-wing forces that dominate much of the state and media have failed to sever this link.

The perspectives of the UCPN-M for a New Nepal include creating secular, democratic republic; a new democratised military based on merging the formerly royalist Nepal Army with the Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA); and fighting discrimination against ethnic minorities, women and the lower castes.

A minimum wage has already been created and the Maoist program promises to guarantee employment. National industry will be prioritised to promote development. Workers will have the right to take part in management.

The Maoists also promote land reform based on the principle of "land to those who work it".

The public education system will be expanded and made free at lower levels. Private education institutions charging high fees will be regulated and phased out. Ethnic minorities will have the right to education in their own language,

A literacy campaign has been launched by volunteers, to combat an illiteracy rate around 50%.

Recognising that health is a human right, the Maoists plan to significantly develop the healthcare system from its current decrepit state — especially in poor rural areas.

Suresh Kumar Ale Maga, a UNCP-M member of parliament, told Green Left Weekly that, for the Maoists, a New Nepal meant "a Nepal on the way to socialism".

Following its victory in the by-elections on this program, the UCPN-M has pressed ahead with plans to restructure the state. The existing structures, inherited from the monarchy, have proved resistant to change.

This has sparked fierce resistance from the opposition, the foreign embassies and the army. This has put the ongoing peace process, as part of which the PLA agreed to end its armed struggle, in jeopardy.

Facing attacks from various sides, the Maoists have responded with ongoing, daily street demonstrations across the country.

The core issue is the need for control by the elected government over the state, with its entrenched bureaucracy.

There have been many controversies involving the army. In February, the army recruited several thousand soldiers against the orders of the government, the supreme court and the interim constitution — and in direct violation of the peace process.

The army again challenged the government when it reinstated eight generals on March 16 who where retired by the defence ministry.

Finally, the army staged a boycott of the recently held National Games when the PLA was allowed to compete.

The open disloyalty of the military towards the elected civilian government represents an obvious threat to democracy. For the ongoing security of Nepal, it is essential that the military be restructured and brought back under the control of the government.

The Nepali Army has changed only in name from the old Royal Nepali Army, which backed an anti-democratic coup to reinstate absolute royal rule in 2005.

The retirement of chief of army staff is an initial step in a process aiming to create the new democratic armed forces.

The key issue is the struggle to create new, democratic state structures.

The basis of the opposition to such moves is the question of power. People in positions of state power in Nepal, be it in the bureaucracy, judiciary or military, feel threatened by the process of change.

The political opposition unites those within the fabric of the old society seeking to prevent the creation of the new. Resistance to change in the military is part of the struggle of the rich and powerful. The elite views the military as its armed gang to insure against radical change.

However, recent Nepalese history has that the real power in society is not to be found at the top. Rather, it rests in the people.

There have been demonstrations every day by Maoist supporters calling for Katawal's retirement. Combined with the by-election results, it puts beyond doubt the fact that popular sentiment is behind the government and supports change.

[Ben Peterson is a member of the socialist youth organisation currently living in Nepal. He maintains a on Nepal.]