Nepal: Chronic Uncertainty
The irreversible gains of 2011 had excited widespread expectation of further consolidation in Nepal, with the hope that the political class would settle their deeper political rifts through a substantially consensual political process. Regrettably, Kathmandu remained as fractious as ever through 2012, deepening the political uncertainty in the country. At the end of 2011, there was optimism regarding the formation of a National Consensus Government (NCG); today, Nepal is led by a Government which has lost its constitutional mandate, having missed the November 22, 2012, deadline for elections.
Significantly, the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly (CA), on May 27, 2012, after the Supreme Court rejected any further extensions of its tenure, left the Government with no legal alternatives to an election, and on May 28, 2012, Prime Minister (PM) Baburam Bhattarai declared, "We have no other option but to go back to the people and elect a new Assembly to write the Constitution. Though we were unable to promulgate the Constitution, we have decided to seek a mandate through elections for a new Constituent Assembly on November 22." The PM stated, further, that he would be leading a caretaker Government until the elections scheduled for November 22, 2012, leading to a breakdown of negotiations with other political formations in the country, who were demanding that elections could only be held under the NCG, as agreed upon earlier.
Nevertheless, the four major parties - Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M), Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), Nepali Congress (NC) and the United Democratic Madheshi Front (UDMF) - soon engaged in the process to negotiate an agreement on the procedure of conducting the CA elections. Unsurprisingly, the intrinsic character of the Nepali polity came to the fore again, and the parties failed to reach a consensus. The deadline could not be met. On November 20, 2012, the Government announced fresh CA elections in the month of Baisakh (April-May) 2013.
The present political impasse has risen over the question of who is to head the NCG, under whose leadership the CA elections are to be conducted. The NC and the CPN-UML have strongly rejected the idea of an NCG headed by the UCPN-M. Staking his party's claim to the NCG's leadership, NC President Sushil Koirala, who has been chosen by his party as its prime ministerial candidate, argued, on December 2, 2012: "We have history of free and fair elections conducted by NC-led governments. Besides, the Maoists and the UML have already led the Government twice each." The CPN-UML has already expressed support for the NC's leadership of the proposed NCG. On the other hand, the UCPN-M is willing to pass the Prime Ministership to the NC only after the opposition agrees to a 'political package' on constitution making. UCPN-M spokesperson Agni Sapkota argued that the ruling alliance sought to stress the resolution of all outstanding issues, including the government leadership, election date, number of election constituencies, appointment of office-bearers in constitutional bodies, among others, in a 'political package'.
In an attempt to end this impasse, exercising his powers under Article 38 (1) of the Interim Constitution, President Ram Baran Yadav, on November 22, 2012, called the political parties to recommend an appropriate proposal by November 29, 2012, for the selection of the PM, as a prelude to the formation of the NCG. As expected, this deadline passed without any conclusive result, and was again extended on November 30, 2012, for another seven days (till December 6, 2012). A new six-day extension followed the failure of the parties to meet this deadline as well. Given PM Bhattarai's description of the President's November 22 initiative as being "against the tenet and spirit of the Interim constitution", it is certain that this deadline will also pass without any result.
As SAIR noted earlier, the lack of political stability has more to do with intra-party rivalries in the major political formations, than with any other single factor. While NC and CPN-UML leaders continue to differ among themselves on the peace process, it is the intra-party rivalry among the Maoists which has been the cause for the greatest alarm. Indeed, after nearly a year of functioning as a 'party within the party', Vice President Mohan Baidya aka Kiran engineered a vertical split on June 19, 2012, forming a new party to "accomplish the remaining tasks of the people's revolution." The new party has been christened 'Communist Party of Nepal, Maoist' (CPN-M). The name is very similar to that of the Matrika Yadav-led CPN (Maoist), though the new party's Central Committee (CC) member Bharat Bam points out that they have avoided any parenthesis in the name. Moreover, in a demonstration of the lack of faith in the party leadership, leaders attending the seventh plenum of the UCPN-M came down heavily on party Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda and PM Baburam Bhattarai. Further, on July 20, the party plenum turned into a battlefield for a while after a "minor dispute" broke out between the Prachanda and Bhattarai factions. Clearly, all is not well within the UCPN-M even after the split.
Meanwhile, nine years after putting the UCPN-M on its inventory of world-wide terrorist organizations, the United States removed the party from the list, arguing that the party had demonstrated a credible commitment to pursuing the peace and reconciliation process in Nepal. The statement issued by the US government in Washington D.C on September 6, 2012, read: "The Department of State has revoked the designation of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and its aliases as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity under Executive Order 13224, and as a "terrorist organization" from the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL) under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)."
In another instance of the growing division within the political classes in Nepal, the janajati (indigenous) leaders, who defected from major political parties protesting their stand against ethnic states, announced a new party under the chairmanship of influential former CPN-UML vice chairman Ashok Rai on November 22, 2012. The newly formed Federal Socialist Party, which has indigenous leaders in its ranks, declared that it would work for the welfare of janajatis and other communities who have historically been oppressed and marginalised.
The growing disconnect between parties is leading to several clashes. According to partial data collected by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), there have been at least eight occasions when the activists of the political parties clashed with each other this year. In one such incident, UCPN-M and NC cadres clashed in Sindhulimadi in Sindhudi District on October 11, 2012. The confrontation ensued when NC cadres were staging a demonstration to protest the manhandling of Taraun Dal, NC's youth wing, central committee member Nabaraj Shrestha, by UCPN-M cadres.
Nevertheless, there have been some signs of political reconciliation as well. In a dramatic development, on May 2, 2012, the major parties - NC, CPN-UML, CPN-Maoist and UDMF - had agreed to form a NCG to ensure the passage of a Constitution by the May 27, 2012, deadline. These parties signed a five-point agreement on May 3, 2012, to this effect. As per the agreement, all 48 Government ministers in the then cabinet, representing coalition partners UCPN-M and UDMF, tendered their resignation to PM Bhattarai on the same day. A new Cabinet, including two Ministers from NC, was formed on May 5, 2012. However, despite signing the agreement, CPN-UML did not join the Cabinet. Then, on May 24, 2012, the NC decided to pull out of the Maoist-led 'consensus' Government, opposing the decision to extend the CA tenure by three more months, bringing an end to the elusive quest for consensus. However, this happened after these parties notched a breakthrough on the new constitution, when they agreed, on May 15, 2012, on an 11-province federal structure along with a mixed governance system.
Further, at least 20 Political parties, mostly from the ruling coalition, announced the formation of an alliance - the Federal Democratic Republican Alliance (FDRA) - at a press conference in Kathmandu, on August 17, 2012. The Alliance declared that it would work towards ethnic-based federalism and the promulgation of a new constitution through the (now dissolved) CA. Similarly, on October 1, 2012, two Terai-based parties and five Janajati political outfits joined forces under a new alliance - the Federal Democratic Front (FDF). It was announced that the objective of the new alliance was to find a way out of the political deadlock, as other parties had failed to do so.
Amidst this uncertain political environment, the Bhattarai-led Government, which came to power on August 29, 2011, saw through the integration of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) cadres. On November 21, 2012, the Army Integration Special Committee (AISC) decided to create 4,171 vacancies in the Nepal Army in order to accommodate 1,462 PLA combatants opting for integration. The remaining 65 per cent (2,709) of vacant posts are to be filled by recruiting candidates through open competition, as per the seven-point agreement signed by the parties on November 1, 2011. Of the recommended new posts, 1,460 will be allocated to PLA combatants who recently passed the exams for integration, including 71 officers' posts. The AISC's term was extended by one month on November 20, 2012.
Though successful integration has been a matter of great satisfaction, there are apprehensions over the future path that may be adopted by the 7,365 trained and ideologically motivated former PLA combatants who opted for the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS). It is argued that many of them opted for VRS because of the amount they were offered - between NPR 500,000 and 800,000 - and they may return to violence in future. Significantly, the Armed Police Force (APF), on April 21, 2012, had arrested Binod Nepali, a former PLA fighter heading home following his voluntary retirement, from Krishnapur Village Development Committee (VDC) in Kanchanpur District, with six rounds of SLR ammunition. In another worrying development related to integration, 4,008 former PLA combatants, who were discharged in 2010 after being disqualified in the verification conducted by the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), are staging protests across the country, demanding money on par with the amount provided to those choosing VRS. On November 4, 2012, the Supreme Court, hearing a petition which described the Cabinet's decision to give each of them NPR 200,000 as compensation as 'illegal' and 'unconstitutional', passed a stay order.
Sporadic violence continues to be recorded, with as many as 11 persons - including 10 civilians and one JTMM militant - killed in six separate incidents. In the deadliest attack, on April 30, 2012, at least five people died and another two dozen were injured in a bomb explosion at Ramanand Chowk in Janakpur District. Police said the bomb, believed to be an improvised explosive device (IED), went off while activists associated with the Mithila Struggle Committee were organising a sit-in protest demanding the creation of an autonomous Mithila State. Earlier, on February 27, 2012, three persons were killed and seven others were injured in an explosion outside the Nepal Oil Corporation's central office at Babarmahal in Kathmandu, some 300 metres from Singha Durbar, the Nepali Parliament. In a more daring attack, an IED went off near Anada Higher Secondary School in Jalbire of Sindhupalchok District, where Finance Minister Barsha Man Pun was attending a programme organized by the UCPN-M on June 2, 2012. Apart from these, Nepal witnessed 12 other explosions, while at least 11 other attempts were foiled. Analysis of the data indicates that the Terai, which hosts most of the 125 caste/ethnic groups reported in Nepal's 2011 Census Report, is the hot bed of violence, even though some groups, such as the Bhagat Singh led Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), have handed over their weapons to the Government following the signing of the four-point deal in August; as well as the Samyukta Janatantrik Tarai Mukti Morcha's (SJTMM's) decision to come over ground.
Worryingly, there are some signs of growing unrest across the country. SATP recorded not less than 15 calls for bandhs (general shut down) through the current year. Significantly, in a non-political rally held on November 10, 2012, over 30,000 people from all over Kathmandu and nearby places assembled to demand a solution to the political deadlock.
In the meantime, the Government remains at loggerheads with the President ever since he issued the first deadline on November 22, 2012, with Finance Minister Barshaman Pun accusing the President of becoming increasingly 'authoritarian' and having ambitions similar to those of the dethroned King Gyanendra Shah. This confrontation is occurring at a time when the Government desperately needs the President's cooperation, as Governance grinds to a standstill, with endemic vacancies in various crucial services. Thus, the Supreme Court has been left with just seven Judges out of a sanctioned strength of 24 (permanent and temporary); similarly, the Election Commission has only two of a five-member Board currently in place. A range of other constitutional bodies are suffering comparable deficits.
It remains to be seen whether the President will approve the Government's other ordinances, including the one to amend the Judicial Council Act 2047(1990), to extend the tenure of the five temporary judges of the Supreme Court who retired on December 5; or is going to use these as a tool to pressurize the Bhattarai Government to come to terms - to negotiate with the opposition to build a consensus and form an NCG sooner than later. Whatever the outcome, the President is now at the centre of power in Kathmandu, and the Government, having lost its constitutional status, functions at his mercy. The period of uncertainty in Nepal appears to have no visible end.
(The writer Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)