Nepal’s Future: In Whose Hands?
Nepal’s Future: In Whose Hands?
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  1. Executive Summary
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Report / Asia 4 minutes

Nepal’s Future: In Whose Hands?

Nepal’s peace process is in danger of collapse. The fall of the Maoist-led government, a mess largely of the Maoists’ own making, was a symptom of the deeper malaise underlying the political settlement.

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Executive Summary

Nepal’s peace process is in danger of collapse. The fall of the Maoist-led government, a mess largely of the Maoists’ own making, was a symptom of the deeper malaise underlying the political settlement. Consensus has steadily given way to a polarisation which has fed the more militaristic elements on both sides. While all moderate politicians still publicly insist that there is no alternative to pursuing the process, private talk of a return to war – led by generals of the Nepalese Army who have never reconciled themselves to peace – has grown louder. Outright resumption of hostilities remains unlikely in the short term but only concerted efforts to re-establish a minimal working consensus and a national unity government including the Maoists can avert the likelihood of a more dangerous erosion of trust. Strong international backing, with India eschewing short-term interference in favour of longer-term guardianship of the process it itself initiated, will be essential.

The immediate cause of the Maoists’ departure from government on 4 May 2009 was their bungled attempt to dismiss the army chief. As the consent for action that they had secured from coalition partners unravelled under external pressure, they pushed ahead unilaterally. Their legally dubious sacking order prompted an even more contentious intervention by the ceremonial president to countermand it. Maoist leader Prachanda quit on grounds of principle; the question of the balance of power between prime minister and president remains in dispute.

The Maoist resignation made the formation of a new administration an urgent necessity and, by Nepal’s standards, the transition was relatively prompt and smooth. However, the new government, led by the centrist Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), UML, is inherently unstable and incapable of addressing the most pressing challenges. Backed by 22 parties, it is yet to take full form and its major constituents are internally riven. Many UML leaders are openly sceptical of the new government, while the Madhesi Jana­dhi­kar Forum (MJF) is now formally split. Between them, they have achieved the unlikely feat of making the Nepali Congress (NC) look the most cohesive and internally democratic of the non-Maoist parties.

The Maoists had not proved as effective in power as many had hoped. Moreover, they alienated two important constituencies: India (both by appearing to make overtures towards China and by refusing to become a pliant, moderate force) and the Kathmandu upper middle classes (by making them pay taxes and failing to deliver basic services, in particular electricity). Yet their main problem is their own refusal to give clear and credible assurances on their commitment to political pluralism and non-violence. Prominent ideologues within the party have given added credence to the argument that they will never alter their strategic goal of state capture and de facto totalitarian rule. In response, the leadership’s insistence that the party has embraced multiparty democracy has been less than fully convincing.

On the other side, the army has adopted a more overt, assertive political role. It is encouraged and supported by many who see it as the only credible opposition to the Maoists. It not only survived the republican transition but has thrived. Helped by timorous parties, it has successfully pushed for a substantial budgetary increase, protected its de facto autonomy, retained its full strength and pressed for new lethal arms imports – in breach of the ceasefire.

Behind much of the recent instability lies an Indian change of course. New Delhi framed the peace deal and acted as its de facto guarantor, pressing all parties to comply with its terms. Never able to digest the Maoist victory and uncomfortable with popular demands for change, it has pursued increasingly interventionist tactics through proxies in Nepali political parties while continuing its policy of ring-fencing the army as the most reliable bastion against Maoist takeover or anarchy. Its resolute opposition to all but token People’s Liberation Army (PLA) integration has unbalanced the peace equation without offering any alternative.

The background against which Kathmandu’s incestuous intrigues are played out is neither stable nor unchanging. Public security remains weak, alarmingly so in several areas. Local governance remains patchy at best and non-existent in places. Peace committees bringing together parties and civil society representatives are functional in some districts but lack a coherent agenda. Identity-based and other newer political movements are impatient with a constitutional process that, while not stalled, looks less and less likely to deliver a broadly acceptable new constitution on schedule. Civil society, a crucial force in the early stages of the peace process, is divided and demoralised.

India’s perceived partisanship has not helped international cohesion. From being the leader of the pack, successfully lining up other international players behind its strategy, it has become something of a lone wolf. It continues to criticise the UN mission, whose credibility was dented by a videotape showing Maoist leader Prachanda boasting that he had duped them into accepting vastly inflated PLA numbers. The UN would like to claim success and get out but cannot refuse requests to monitor arms as long as the situation – over which it has no direct influence – remains unresolved. In the meantime its role in preserving a fragile peace and affording Nepal some shelter from total Indian domination is under-appreciated.

Donors are keen to return to normal development activities and have been willing to fund the peace process. But their patience is wearing thin, conditions for business as usual are yet to materialise and international funding is subsidising a bloated and unaffordable security sector. The army alone far outnumbers the national civil service; it, cantoned PLA combatants and the paramilitary armed police are of no use in addressing the basic need for law and order.

It is true that all parties are still talking and there is a tradition of last-minute deals to stave off disaster. The same could happen again. But that should not obscure the fact that the rifts between the major players have grown wider and the grounds for compromise narrower. Averting a slide back to conflict will require a clear-sighted recognition of the dangers, genuine cooperation between Nepal’s parties to address them and much more solid international backing for the process, starting with a decisive lead from India.

Kathmandu/Brussels, 13 August 2009

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