With just a month to go before the end of the second extension of the Constituent Assembly, on 31 August, the mood of cynicism and uncertainty in Nepal continues to deepen, with no clear indication as to where the peace process is heading. The fast-approaching deadline has citizens worried, with the peace process and constitution-drafting stuck more or less exactly where they were before the signing of the five-point deal by the major political parties on the night of 28 May. The Assembly, which was originally elected for two years, first had its term extended by a year in May 2010, before the current three-month extension.
While the signing of the deal on 28 May deferred a constitutional crisis, the major parties – the Unified Communist Party of Nepal Maoist (UCPN-M), the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) – have yet to make any concrete progress on the peace process and constitution-drafting, as was promised in the deal. At that time, they had agreed to form a national consensus government, accomplish the major tasks of integration and rehabilitation of the 19,000-plus Maoist ex-combatants, currently housed in 28 cantonments, and at least prepare a first draft of the much-awaited constitution. But they have continued to waste valuable time in inter- and intra-party power struggles, and over the tactical lines to be taken with regard to the peace process, while ignoring the approaching deadline and the looming constitutional crisis.
Among the parties, the one most divided over the future course of the peace process is the UCPN-M – the party of the former Maoist rebels who joined the peace process in 2006 after waging a decade-long insurgency and in the 2008 elections became the largest party in the Assembly. The ideological divisions have been exacerbated by the intra-party tussles for power. The meetings of the Special Committee, which is tasked with the responsibility of finalising the integration and rehabilitation of the Maoist combatants, are being repeatedly postponed at the behest of Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Sources say Dahal has told Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal, who is also the coordinator of the Special Committee, that he is discussing the party’s official policy with regard to the peace process in his party’s Central Committee (CC) meeting, and that his party cannot participate in the meetings of the Special Committee until the CC endorses his proposals.
As Himal goes to press, Dahal is finding it difficult to get his political document endorsed by the CC. This document outlines the party’s strategy in the peace process, but Dahal finds himself in a minority within the UCPN-M. The party’s dominant hard-line faction, which has a strong hold on the party rank and file, has launched scathing criticisms against the commitments made in the five-point deal, which the faction says amount to surrender to ‘domestic reactionaries, Indian expansionism and Western imperialism’.
With the backing of party leader Baburam Bhattarai, who leads a separate faction of moderates, Dahal may well get his document endorsed by the CC. But Bhattarai is himself engaged in a bitter power struggle with Dahal, and has instead forged an alliance with the hardliners led by Mohan Baidya in an attempt to clip the wings of Dahal, who has so far enjoyed almost unbridled political and financial control of the party for the last 20 years. The newly forged alliance between Baidya and Bhattarai has overturned power equations in the party, severely weakening Dahal’s position.
In 2001, five years after they launched an insurgency to establish a communist state in Nepal, the Maoists had decided to centralise the party’s authority in the hands of Chairman Dahal. Now Baidya and Bhattarai, who between them command a majority in the CC, have accused Dahal of deviating from the party’s ideological goals and developing a system of patronage to maintain his hold on the party. Dahal presently leads all three wings of the Maoist movement – the party organisation, the political front and the combatants – and the party’s official policy states that it is the duty of all the leaders to obey the directives of their chairman without raising any questions. The leaders from the alliance have however argued that a communist party should be the centralised expression of the collective leadership, and that it would be wrong to adopt singular leadership, which will pave the way for ‘dictatorship’.
The new power equations in the party have had an adverse impact on the peace process, as Baidya and Bhattarai have blocked discussions on Dahal’s political document in the CC, saying that they would not allow the document to be endorsed until the chairman agrees to adopt ‘collective leadership’, make the financial system transparent and takes steps to ‘democratise’ the party. Four of the five top party leaders – Baidya, Bhattarai, Narayan Kaji Shrestha and Ram Bahadur Thapa – have now ganged up against the fifth, Dahal.
While the internal conflict among the Maoists has delayed the peace process, what worries the other parties more is the content of Dahal’s document, which undermines the spirit of the five-point deal. The document has taken the so-called ‘four types of preparations’ as the party’s strategy in case the constitution drafting and peace process fails. The Maoists had been engaged in these four types of preparations – ideological, technical, organisational and military – in order to lay down the foundation for the ‘People’s War’. The Congress and the UML have said that the document violates many provisions of peace agreements signed in the past. In an attempt to appease the party’s hard-line faction, Dahal’s document states that the integration process should move forward alongside the formulation of the new constitution. This is against the spirit of the five-point deal which aimed to complete most of the tasks of the integration process prior to formulating the new constitution. ‘It is frustrating to read a document that talks about the party’s options if the peace process fails,’ says UML leader Pradip Gyawali.
While the document avers that the party would accept the integration modality floated by the Nepal Army, it demands that Maoist combatants be given the leadership of the new directorate proposed to be created by incorporating the combatants. The Nepal Army’s suggestion, on the other hand, is to create a separate directorate under its command, which would include personnel from the Army, Armed Police, Civilian Police and the Maoist combatants. Furthermore, Dahal’s demand that the new force be given a combat role is also against the model proposed by the Army, which wants to develop the directorate as its special wing for development work, relief-and-rescue operations, and forest-area protection. Interestingly, Dahal’s document remains silent on the number of combatants to be integrated, rank harmonisation and rehabilitation packages, which are the most contentious issues of the integration process.
Another problem is that Dahal’s document states that the UCPN-M should continue to support the current coalition government led by the UML. This is also against the five-point deal, which clearly says that the prime minister would step down immediately to pave the way for a national consensus government. Through this proposal in his document, Dahal wants to prevent arch-rival Baburam Bhattarai becoming the prime minister.
Meanwhile, even though formation of a national consensus government would facilitate the peace process, the faction-ridden Nepali Congress (NC), the second-largest party in the Constituent Assembly, has not pressed this demand, due to a power struggle between Ram Chandra Poudel, the party’s leader in the Assembly, and Sher Bahadur Deuba, senior party leader and former prime minister. According to reports, Maoist chairman Dahal has assured Deuba that he would back the latter to become prime minister of a consensus government. ‘That’s the reason why the Congress has not raised the issue of forming a national consensus government as was the provision in the five-point deal,’ confirms Nepali Congress party leader Bimalendra Nidhi, who is close to Deuba.
The month of August will be crucial for the peace process in Nepal. The Supreme Court has already passed an order that the Assembly’s term cannot be extended beyond six months beginning 28 May. In light of this order, all the parties can do is to further defer the peace process by extending the Assembly’s term for another three months. But the Congress and the Madhesi parties have already said that they would not back the extension until the Maoists cooperate with the Special Committee to complete the integration and rehabilitation of the combatants.
Yet, there seems to be little option beyond extension of the Assembly’s term by another three months. If the Assembly is dissolved without the peace process and constitution-drafting reaching a logical conclusion, the aftermath can be disastrous: Elected institutions will be illegitimate and parties will lose their credibility, leading to a might-is-right situation. ‘What we fear is that the conflict would be multiple, not like the one in the past: state versus rebels. It may even trigger conflict among the ethnic groups who are demanding a constitution that guarantees their rights,’ says UML leader Gyawali.
It is not that the Maoists are not aware of the danger if the Assembly is dissolved without drafting a constitution. But with the emergence of new power equations in the party, Dahal’s powers to make bold decisions have been severely curtailed. According to party insiders, Dahal now plans to complete the categorisation of the combatants into two groups before 31 August – those opting for integration into the security forces and those opting for rehabilitation – and then propose another extension of the Assembly. But that may not convince the Congress and the Madhes-based parties, without whose support the motion to extend the term of the Assembly would fall short of the needed two-thirds majority.
In the past, Dahal used the peace process as a bargaining chip to ascend to power. Now that he appears to be sincerely committed to completing the process, his position in the party has been weakened. It remains to be seen what moves Dahal, who has been shackled by the alliance of two rival factions in the party, will now make, and whether they will be helpful or inimical to the peace process.
~ Post Bahadur Basnet is a reporter for the Republica daily in Kathmandu.