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Nepal: politicking without governing February 10, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : Dowler, Amy, Nepal , trackback

Amy Dowler

It was high farce on the streets of Kathmandu recently when Raj Lal Yadav attempted – unsuccessfully – to resign from his ministerial post in Nepal’s coalition government. Yadav is a member of the Madhesi Janaadhikari Forum-Republican Party, a junior partner in the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (UCPN(M))-led coalition. His dissatisfaction with his post was due ultimately to its meaninglessness. Despite frequent and well-publicised expressions of frustration, he remained minister without portfolio four months after his elevation to the ministry.

Two weeks ago Yadav finally decided his role was never going to grow substance and scheduled an appointment with Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai to tender his formal resignation. Unfortunately, the date of that appointment coincided with a bandh. Bandhs, city or nation-wide shutdowns called and enforced by various interest groups, are a much used political device in Nepal. During a properly enforced bandh motorised transport is prohibited (except in the case of emergencies, or tourists).

Not to be deterred, Yadav, along with his aides, took to the pavement to walk to the Prime Minister’s office at Singha Durba, the seat of Nepal’s government. Upon arrival he however discovered his efforts had been in vain: while it could not stop Yadav, the bandh had acted as a deterrent to the PM who decided against venturing to his office that day.

Yadav’s tribulations are a good allegory for the state of politics in Nepal at present. When a Prime Minister admits he doesn’t even know the names of everyone in his Cabinet, it is fair to assume that the bestowal of ministerial positions has as much to do with appeasing coalition partners as exploiting lawmakers’ talents to the advantage of the nation. For the country’s political parties, practical concerns about governing the country come a distant second to playing politics to maximise power in the endgame of Nepal’s protracted peace process.

Since the last major breakthrough in the peace process – an agreement on the fate of 19,000 ex-Maoist combatants in November – progress has been glacial. As is often the case in Nepal, this has been due more to intra than inter-party feuds. The hard-line UPCN(M) faction led by Mohan Baidya never accepted the ex-combatant agreement and begun making trouble once it looked like being implemented. Specifically, Baidya was against relinquishing any of what could be considered the Maoists’ standing army before a constitution consistent with Maoist ideals was secured. He argued the Maoists needed to hang on to their combatants as a bargaining chip, or indeed for use in the event the peace and constitution-writing process fell over altogether, and threatened to split his faction from the party should the process go ahead.

The Maoists accordingly stalled throughout January while chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Baidya and Bhattarai are vice-chairmen) had a series of meetings with Baidya. The disagreement appeared intractable, as did a disagreement with major opposition party Nepali Congress (NC) over the best form of governance for ‘New Nepal’. The word ‘revolt’ started being bandied around and the possibility the Maoists could indeed return to arms suddenly looked plausible, if distantly so.

It took time, but Dahal, known as Prachanda, demonstrated once again why he is the most powerful politician in Nepal. He brokered a deal in which Baidya would allow ex-combatants opting for retirement to leave the cantonments in exchange for Prachanda’s word that he would join the hardliners in a ‘people’s revolt’ should the peace process fail. Ex-combatants opting for voluntary retirement finally headed home this week. Integration will take longer as agreement on rank determination remains outstanding.

Apart from that relatively minor breakthrough, the process seems to meet roadblock after roadblock. The Maoists continue to bang heads with the NC over the form of governance to be set in the new constitution. The Maoists insist on a directly elected President, while the NC advocates a Westminster system with a Prime Minister chosen by parliament.

Parliament has barely sat since early January. Sixteen parties, led by the NC and the other major opposition party the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) (CPN(UML)), have been obstructing its operation, initially to protest UCPN(M) stalling on the peace process and latterly, in opposition to its decision to legalise land transactions it made as a parallel government during the war.

Moreover, the Dispute Resolution Committee, tasked with ironing out contentious issues of the new constitution, has been rendered unable to act by the persistent absence of a key member, Prachanda himself. The State Restructuring Committee, created to make recommendations on the federal units of new Nepal, handed its report to the PM last week. In the end it submitted two reports due to its inability to reach consensus on the number of states and their relationship with the centre.

Nepalis are sick and tired of the incessant politicking of their leaders, not just because it is tiresome in itself, but because at the same time they are also forced to put up with a serious lack of basic amenities. The bandh that forced Yadav to walk to Singha Durba two weeks ago had nothing to do with politics: it was a protest against a petrol price rise. The price rise may have been tolerated had it not been accompanied by a crippling fuel shortage. At the moment in Nepal petrol queues are gargantuan and often fruitless. You can’t find a gas bottle to bless yourself with – meaning many can’t cook. Power cuts are up to 16 hours per day and water shortages are worsening.

It’s not every day that a country has to design itself and it could be argued that governance as normal is simply not possible during a period of state making as fundamental as that occurring in Nepal at the moment. Yet politicians seem more intent on navel gazing than state building. Talk is now of handing government to the NC. It is considered their ‘turn’ as the CPN(UML) and UCPN(M) have each had two Prime Ministers since the end of the war, while it has had just one in that period.

The Supreme Court ruled the most recent constituent assembly extension should be the final one (a decision the government is appealing). It stated that fresh elections or a referendum should be held should parties fail to complete the peace process and promulgate a constitution during this term. The term expires on 30 May. If between now and then Nepal’s lawmakers cannot reach agreement on the form of their democracy, the basis for the land’s division into states and how to deal with war-time crimes and acts of parallel government – to name just some of the thorniest issues – the everyday needs of Nepalis will likely be further subjugated by intensified political turmoil once again.

 

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