Nepal’s New Political Landscape
Nepal’s New Political Landscape
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Report 156 / Asia

Nepal’s New Political Landscape

Nepal’s Maoists crowned their transition from underground insurgency to open politics with a convincing victory in 10 April 2008 constituent assembly (CA) elections.

Executive Summary

Nepal’s Maoists crowned their transition from underground insurgency to open politics with a convincing victory in 10 April 2008 constituent assembly (CA) elections. Their surprise win has thrown other parties into confusion, with the major mainstream ones unwilling to recognise their defeat and participate in a Maoist-led government, despite clear pre-election and constitutional commitments to maintaining cross-party unity. The CA nearly unanimously ended the monarchy at its first sitting and gave birth to the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. However, extended, unedifying haggling over government-formation suggests the consensus-based approach to the constitutional process will be hard to implement. Building a lasting peace and delivering the change voters called for requires all parties to accept the new situation and cooperate under a Maoist-led government, in particular to deal with issues scarcely yet addressed including the security sector, reestablishment of law and order in some districts, land and local government.

For once, a rarity in Nepali politics, the political landscape has changed irrevocably. The country has managed a peaceful republican transition, and the Maoists – the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN(M)) – and regional parties are here to stay. While old-style politicking will continue, the shape of politics has been seriously revised. The new CA is the most inclusive body Nepal has ever elected, with much greater representation of the many castes, ethnic groups and regional communities than past parliaments. Women make up a third of the assembly, placing Nepal well ahead of other countries in the region. However, the elections produced not only a mandate for change but also a recipe for deadlock.

The old parties have not woken up to the new realities. The popular mandate was not for a one-party minority administration but for cooperation on a path for peace and change. The Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist, UML) went into the election with a clear commitment to working on the basis of consensus and cooperation after the polls, regardless of the outcome. Their reluctance to keep that promise may be partly a bargaining position but risks harming the process and further reducing their already low public esteem. They are in danger of being seen as sulking spoilers instead of constructive participants in a constitutional process that would benefit from healthy debate and different policy positions. The longer they delay internal reforms to make themselves more representative, the longer it will take to reconnect with disillusioned former supporters.

The Maoist leadership has also not made full use of the opportunity to lever its position of strength internally and decisively reject the politics of violence and coercion. The “peaceful revolution” strategy, much questioned within the movement, appears to have delivered a greater success than even its architects expected. Still, they face internal debates and external pressures. They are capable of working in coalition – indeed, Maoist leader Prachanda has a much better track record of managing his own party’s internal disputes through consensus than Girija Prasad Koirala of the NC, who announced on 26 June that he would resign as prime minister. But winning trust will require action as well as words, starting with a demonstrated commitment to the rule of law and an end to the parallel policing functions of the Young Communist League (YCL).

The security sector remains the critical problem. The continuing existence of two standing armies is inherently destabilising. There are widespread and sensible concerns over a Maoist government commanding both the Nepal Army (NA) and its own forces. But it is the NA and the mainstream parties who created this situation by spending two years determinedly resisting every overture to discuss the future of the security sector. The national army remains outside any meaningful democratic control – and hence without checks and balances to safeguard a smooth handover of power. This is a legacy of ex-Prime Minister Koirala and army chief Rookmangad Katwal’s preference to use the army as a tool for personal political interest. Maoist willingness to discuss compromise options has met with an unyielding brick wall.

Beyond the security sector, other pressing challenges need to be addressed. Law and order is in tatters, particularly in some Tarai districts, and the culture of impunity remains intact. There has been no progress on the twin questions of returning land seized during the conflict and establishing a committee to plan promised land reforms. Securing the peace will require serious attention to measures at the district and village level, but so far there has not even been consensus on reestablishing the rudiments of local government.

In a final irony of the republican transition, ex-King Gyanendra’s dignified exit suggested that he understood the popular mood better than the old parties. Every indication is that party leaders, however, have little respect for the supposed sovereignty of the CA and wish to keep all decision-making powers in a few hands. This bodes ill for the legitimacy of the constitution-writing process.

A companion report, published simultaneously, describes the CA campaign and vote, assesses the credibility of the election and analyses the results.

Kathmandu/Brussels, 3 July 2008

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.