Nepal’s Fitful Peace Process
Asia Briefing N°120
7 Apr 2011
Nepal is entering a new phase in its fitful peace process, in which its so-called “logical conclusion” is in sight: the integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants and the introduction of a new constitution. The Maoists, the largest party, are back in government in a coalition led by the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), UML party. Negotiations, although fraught, are on with the second-largest party, the Nepali Congress (NC), to join. Agreement is being reached on constitutional issues and discussions continue on integration. None of the actors are ramping up for serious confrontation and few want to be seen as responsible for the collapse of the constitution-writing process underway in the Constituent Assembly (CA). But success depends on parties in opposition keeping tactical threats to dissolve the CA to a minimum, the government keeping them engaged, and the parties in government stabilising their own precariously divided houses. It will also require the Maoists to take major steps to dismantle their army.
The fundamentally political nature of the transitional arms and armies arrangements became clear when the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) departed in January 2011, as did the resilience of the peace process and the Maoists’ continued buy-in. That is encouraging, as is the fresh momentum. But major challenges remain. The CA may need a short extension when its term expires on 28 May 2011 if the parties cannot quickly agree on integration or federalism. But the Madhesi parties and sections of the NC and UML are willing to argue against extension, largely as a bargaining posture, and to slow down negotiations to suggest that the CA is ineffective. All parties in government are in the throes of factional struggles; internal disagreements and threatened splits complicate the outlook. In their rush to get to the finish line, all parties risk doing the bare minimum to “complete” the process. After 21 months of fighting over access to power, including sixteen unsuccessful votes to select a prime minister, and limited progress in the year before that, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) has become a ragged document.
There has been no empirical survey on the state of landholdings and no land reform measures implemented yet. The Disappearance and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have not yet been formed. Plans for what the CPA calls the “democratisation” of the Nepal Army are so far largely self-directed and more concerned with beautifying the bureaucracy surrounding the army, rather than making the institution more accountable and smaller. These long-term projects would be easy to push on to the back burner. But to do so would undermine implementation of the new constitution and the deep political reform envisaged in the CPA, and consolidation of lasting peace. State restructuring, though broadly agreed to be essential or unavoidable, plays out in public as a binary debate on the Maoists’ contested definition of federalism, rather than on what it is Nepalis want out of this change and how best to deliver that.
The immediate tasks, integration and getting the new constitution right, are critical to addressing these issues in the long term. This government has close to the two-thirds majority needed to pass the constitution or extend the CA. But the resistance of some in the NC and the Madhesi parties, encouraged by India, could make for another messy, last-minute action, in which substantive issues are compromised to defend power-sharing arrangements. Further, a constitution, or a plan for its deferral, that any of the larger parties does not sign off on would be contested from the start. Visible progress is needed to reassure the fractured polity and public that the task of transforming the state has not been abandoned and to counter the threat of localised violence in the lead up to the 28 May deadline. Ideally, extension of the CA would be short and accompanied by a non-negotiable timeline for resolution of the federalism question, and public disclosure of even a partial draft.
The NC and Madhesi parties from the country’s southern Tarai region should join the government to make decisions truly consensual and share the political gains of success. Until then, the ruling UML-Maoist coalition needs urgently to engage with these parties. The Maoists must finally make a good faith gesture on dismantling its People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The NC must go beyond its rhetorical dichotomy of democracy versus Maoist state capture and contribute constructively to negotiations.
The Maoists are undergoing a transformation, dramatically visible in divisive public spats between the leaders, as the party simultaneously acts as a revolutionary movement, a political party aggressively pushing the limits of democratic practice, and an expanding enterprise of financial interests and patronage. With the Maoists announcing, while in government, the creation of a new “volunteer” outfit, continuing extortion by the party’s various wings, monopoly over decision-making and intimidation in some districts, and ideological reiteration of “revolt”, they are a difficult partner to trust. This is their moment to acknowledge that capturing state power through armed force is no longer on their agenda, and to address the deep discontent within the leadership.
For the NC and UML, which have done little to rebuild their political organisations and regain political space after the 2008 CA elections, contributing positively to immediate and medium-term peace process goals could revitalise their bases. Their greatest challenges come from divisions within, rigidity towards the new political order, and the social changes at the grassroots. Their weak organisations and internal disputes, reservations about the extent of reform proposed by the peace process and poorly articulated party policies may further marginalise them.
Most Madhesi parties, whose participation in national politics in the last two years has been largely limited to making up the numbers for a variety of alliances, still look to New Delhi for assistance. Their political agenda is devalued by their opportunistic political alliances, but they retain the ability, with some assistance, to mobilise in order to give the government a hard time and push for a role in decision-making so their concerns are addressed.
With the departure of UNMIN, New Delhi again finds itself in a leadership role in international engagement with Nepal. The new coalition demonstrates the limits of its policy of isolating the Maoists and India must now re-assess whether it can continue to hold this position and whether dissolution of the CA, its preferred option, will have controllable consequences. Re-engagement with the Maoists will require the various sections of the Indian establishment to manoeuvre themselves out of the corner they have painted themselves into; having supported and encouraged Nepali actors in taking extreme anti-Maoist stances, they will have to backtrack, potentially leaving allies in Kathmandu to pay the political price. The rest of the international community needs to offer consultative, unstinting and transparent support to implementing long-term peace process commitments.
Kathmandu/Brussels, 7 April 2011