- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's decision to dissolve Nepal's parliament and elect a new one Nov. 13 amid a Maoist guerrilla war has split the ruling party. But many who are skeptical about a wartime vote see a worse alternative: Rule by royal decree.

Nepal's Supreme Court last week upheld Mr. Deuba's decisions, terming them a political matter. The court's 11-member special bench said in its Aug. 6 opinion that dissolving parliament is the prime minister's prerogative and rejected the petitioners' claim that he could not order fresh elections during the state of emergency imposed last November to fight a Maoist insurgency.

More than 50 members of parliament loyal to former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and six from small leftist parties had filed the petition challenging Mr. Deuba's decision to dissolve the 205-member parliament and seeking its reinstatement.

The dissolution of parliament was the result of an internal conflict in the ruling Nepali Congress (NC) party over the question of extending the emergency rule to fight the Maoist insurgency.

Mr. Koirala, the NC president, backed by the opposition Unified Marxist and Leninist (UML) party, opposed Mr. Deuba's proposal to extend emergency rule, arguing that a government based on a broader democratic alliance was needed to talk to, negotiate with and disarm the Maoist rebels.

The prime minister, backed by ruling party hard-liners as well as Washington, London and New Delhi, has adamantly refused to negotiate with the Maoist insurgents, whom he calls "terrorists."

The Supreme Court's refusal to revive the dissolved parliament was a victory for Mr. Deuba over Mr. Koirala, party archrival and his predecessor as prime minister.

The 55-year-old centrist NC party has been split in two by the Deuba and Koirala factions. Both groups call themselves the Nepali Congress, and have claimed the party's flag and election symbol. The Election Commission, however, has not yet ruled on the rival claims.

This election will be the fourth since 1991 in the Himalayan country, where the Maoist-led armed insurgency is seeking to overthrow the 233-year-old monarchy and establish a class-less people's republic.

Political analysts say reinstatement of the parliament would have increased political instability, leading to a change of government from the NC to a UML-led coalition, since the ruling party lost its majority after splitting over dissolution.

With the NC in disarray after its split into Deuba and Koirala factions, the chance of victory in the Nov. 13 balloting has shifted toward the UML, say analysts.

Although the Supreme Court decision cleared away the legal hurdles for the elections, political analysts are not sure the voting can be peaceful, free and fair in the midst of civil war. The court verdict may have ended confusion over whether elections will be held, but Maoist rebels have threatened to disrupt the vote, calling it a sham.

Security at polling booths is a major concern. In 1999, when the Maoist insurgency was less advanced, the government had to conduct parliamentary elections in two phases because of the limited availability of security personnel.

Now, three years later, the violence has increased to such an extent that the government is said to lack an effective presence in half the country. Under the circumstances, it may be impossible to hold voting at nearly 4,000 of Nepal's 8,000 polling centers. There are concerns about how candidates can campaign in Maoist-controlled areas, whether voters will show up to vote, and how many of them will actually cast ballots.

The Deuba government, however, is committed to holding "free and fair" elections as scheduled and says the security forces have made tremendous progress in controlling the Maoist "terrorists." It predicts that the latter will be brought under total control by November.

Seasoned observers of Nepali politics, however, are skeptical. The insurgency has taken a heavy toll on every facet of national life. Government officials concede that in fiscal years 2001-2002 the state lost more than $500 million 10 percent of Nepal's gross national product and 42 percent of the government's annual budget in insurgency- and counterinsurgency-related activities.

The violence has already taken 6,600 lives, more than 4,600 of them this year. Several thousand people have been injured, and an estimated half-million villagers have left for the cities in search of safety and jobs.

Several human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, accuse both the government and the rebels of massive abuse of human rights.

The security forces are said to carry out indiscriminate bombings of villages, torture, and extra-judicial killings of captives. Recently, Paris-based Reporters without Borders charged the government with killing Krishna Sen, editor of a pro-Maoist weekly, while in police custody.

The Maoist insurgents are accused of grisly slayings of suspected informers and of security personnel after they surrender during combat.

Political stability does not appear likely in Nepal until the issues political legitimacy, economic development and equitable resource distribution, and problems of ethnicity, low caste and deprived communities raised by the Maoist insurgency are addressed and settled.

While civil society and the opposition parties urge a negotiated settlement, Mr. Deuba insists on the surrender of arms by the insurgents as a precondition for talks. Analysts say this demand is unrealistic, since the rebels nearly match the government in strength.

Mr. Deuba's political strength lies not in the villages of Nepal, but in the power corridors of Washington, London, and New Delhi, where he has been assured political, military and economic assistance to fight the Maoists.

In April, the Pentagon agreed to upgrade Nepal's military attache to the status of "defense attache," allowing Lt. Col. Kishore Jung Thapa, stationed at the Royal Nepalese Embassy in Washington, greater access to U.S. defense officials.

But observers familiar with Nepal's corruption say that once these foreign resources reach Katmandu, the politicians, bureaucrats and generals will battle over pieces of the pie.

The Maoists say they are ready to talk with government representatives, but will not negotiate for less than election of a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution. A recent interview of Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal or Prachanda indicates the rebels are willing to participate in a referendum over whether Nepal should remain a monarchy or become a republic.

People in the country and friends of Nepal abroad worry if elections are not held as scheduled. In the absence of elections, there will be no government answerable to parliament. The constitution does not confer legitimacy on anything that happens under such circumstances.

Article 127 of Nepal's Constitution allows the king to exercise power of "clearing the difficulties and hindrances." In the absence of a democratically elected institution, he would rule by diktat an outcome the Rana-Shah family oligarchy and royalist military officers have sought since 1990.

Chitra Tiwari is a free-lance analyst of international affairs based in Washington. He was previously a lecturer of political science at Nepal's Tribhuvan University. He can be reached at cktiwari@erols.com.

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