The political stability promised by the People’s Movement of April 2006, which led to the downfall of the Nepali monarchy and brought the Maoists into aboveground politics, has proved to be a chimera. The elections to the Constituent Assembly in April 2008 brought the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) into the house as the largest party. However, it did not have even a simple majority, and getting the support of two-thirds of the house, as required to adopt a new constitution, would have meant winning the cooperation of the two other major parties, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist).
The subsequent two years were meant to have been set aside for the writing of the constitution. Instead, they have seen growing polarisation on the ideological front, which has seeped into the very pores of society, with the people starkly divided into ‘pro-Maoist’ and ‘anti-Maoist’ camps. Today, the only positive way to look at the last two years is as a cooling-off period for a peace process that seemed to have moved rather too rapidly for the players, particularly the Maoists. After all, the former rebels were catapulted from a brutal insurgency to the Constituent Assembly (which also serves as Parliament) to leading the government, all within just two years.
One could easily say that this period was not enough to convince the cadre about the U-turn taken by the party high command from state capture to open, parliamentary politics. While trying to tackle the contradictions within the party between the Maoist purists and the pragmatists, the leadership sought to mollify their cadre, reiterating that the plans for a ‘protracted people’s war’ were still on. The distance that the Maoists had to travel from their radical positioning meant that, when constitution-related discussions did take place, the UCPN (Maoist) representatives sought to introduce elements into the draft that were far from democratic, including curbs on the judiciary’s independence, attempts to foist political ‘prior rights’ by ethnicity onto a mixed populace, and criteria that restricted the freedom to organise into political parties. Most importantly, the Maoists insisted that they were in support of multi-party competition even while vehemently opposing the term pluralism, hinting at a deeply held ideology that held out the spectre of one-party autocracy.
The other parties arrayed against the Maoists, in particular the CPN (UML) and Congress, while riven by schisms, stuck to their liberal-democratic ideas of constitutionalism. Essentially, these were anchored in the principles enshrined in the superseded Constitution of 1990, with adjustments made in favour of secularism, federalism and republicanism. Both the Maoist and non-Maoist sides sought to consolidate their respective positions over the last two years, and this polarisation came to a head as the deadline of 28 May neared. Members of civil society were also forced to publicly define their opinions on a spectrum of issues – the constitutional draft, the Constituent Assembly’s term extension, the basic values of constitutionalism, and the formula for the demobilisation of the 19,000-plus Maoist ex-combatants – rather than continue to sit on the fence.
When the Maoists became involved in a series of political adventures that ultimately led to their resignation from government in May 2009, 22 out of the 25 parties in the Constituent Assembly were able to cobble together an unwieldy and inefficient coalition. That grouping was able to hold together over the past year, albeit solely out of fear of a Maoist return to power. Realising the mistake of having let go of a government in which they held nearly all powerful ministries, the Maoist leaders spent the last year trying to get back in, by working to bring down the incumbent government. They obstructed Parliament for five months, started an ultra-nationalist anti-India campaign, another campaign for ‘civilian supremacy’, and briefly toyed with the idea of a no-confidence motion, which was dropped for lack of numbers. On 1 May, goaded by radicals within the party, Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka ‘Prachanda’) called an indefinite nationwide general strike, an attempt to usher in ‘revolt’ and change the government through street action. It did not work. After six days, amidst widespread reactions against the strike and a large citizen’s gathering in Kathmandu, the Maoist leadership called off the strike.
End of the beginning
One could say that the ‘failure’ of the general strike made the Maoists amenable to certain concessions, which their radical flank had not previously allowed. As such, assuming that by the time this issue of Himal is out the constitutional deadline has been extended, there will be no time to lose in converting the Maoists into a ‘civilian party’ – without its own fighting force. Without this, none of the other political parties will be confident about being free of psychological duress during constitution-drafting. ‘How can we write a constitution when the Maoists have such non-democratic ideas, plus their own army, to threaten us with?’ ask the parties. The peace process will be said to have successfully come to a conclusion only when the cantonments housing the Maoist cadre are disbanded, and the semi-military structures of the Maoist youth wing, the Young Communist League, are dismantled. The agreement has been for a number of the combatants to be integrated into the national security forces, and the rest to be rehabilitated back into society.
At that point, work can begin in earnest towards the writing of a democratic constitution, which will institutionalise the secular, federal, democratic republic. Indeed, with the constitution-writing no longer held hostage by the peace process, the substantive pending issues could be addressed within a few months. These include matters relating to the independence of the judiciary, the place of pluralism, the demarcation of provinces in a federal Nepal, the freedom of political organisation and others. Such issues are non-negotiable from a liberal-democratic standpoint, but one matter will undoubtedly foster vigorous debate: the direct presidential system that the Maoists insist on, versus the traditional parliamentary system that most of the other political forces seem to prefer.
Amidst the political polarisation and brinksmanship, we believe that Nepal will, as always, pull back from the cliff’s edge. While two years have been largely wasted on the altar of the peace process, the year ahead will be the actual phase of constitution-writing. The negotiations between the political parties, the active involvement of the legal fraternity and larger civil society – and the planned consultations with the general public – will, it is hoped, produce a constitution truly suited to Nepal’s diverse society. Such a document will deliver a democratic peace and long-term political stability, which will allow the country’s long-battered economy to spring to life, and enable development and post-conflict rehabilitation, at long last, to proceed. The citizens of Nepal have suffered and waited too long.