- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

Nepal is heading toward a constitutional crisis June 15 after Chief Election Commissioner Bhoj Raj Pokhrel notified the interim government on April 12 that the commission would be unable to hold elections to a Constituent Assembly for lack of election laws and other technicalities. He asked that the elections be held 110 days after June 14, the date specified by the interim constitution for holding the elections.

No new date for the elections has been announced, nor has there been any attempt to amend the interim constitution to allow for a new date. Proceedings of the Legislative-Parliament have been disrupted for more than a month by Madheshi legislators representing southern Nepal near the Indian border, and also by Maoists.

Madheshis live in the flatlands of southern Nepal, a region called Madhesh. They are fighting for equality in Nepal’s government and society.

While the Maoists have returned to the legislature seeking immediate declaration of a Nepal republic, the Madheshi legislators disrupt proceedings with demands to cancel the Election Constituency Delineation Commission (ECDC), announce the date for the Constituent Assembly elections, and a new census in the Madhesh region, among other issues.

Consequently, the interim Eight-Party Alliance (EPA) government that includes the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), formed April 1, has become an April Fool’s joke, and seems ready to collapse June 15 when its term ends.

The Maoists don’t want to be fooled, and their leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, says eight-party unity has crumbled, because its basis was the commitment of the other parties — especially the Nepali Congress party that heads the coalition government — to hold elections to a Constituent Assembly within the constitutionally scheduled time frame.

Last Sunday, thousands of Maoists and their supporters formed a 3-mile-long human chain around Singha Durbar, a palace that houses the offices of Cabinet ministers as well as the Legislative-Parliament, seeking the immediate declaration of a republic by parliamentary decree. Participants turned over a petition with 1.5 million signatures to House Speaker Subash Chandra Nemang, demanding the immediate declaration of a republic.

Prachanda, the Maoist leader, says the new basis of eight-party unity must be an agreement to have the Legislative-Parliament declare Nepal a democratic republic and then set the new date for elections. However, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala insists that declaring the republic must be left to the first session of the Constituent Assembly, as stipulated in the interim constitution.

The politicians are blaming each other for the government’s failure to hold elections by the agreed date.

All the leftist parties, which make up a majority in the interim legislature, accuse Mr. Koirala, 85, of dillydallying for fear his party will emerge from the elections in the minority because of the growing leftist influence in Nepal. His supporters say the Maoists are no less responsible for the government’s failure to hold the elections because of their failure to abide by agreements to return the seized property of those who supported the royal regime.

Under the 12-point agreement between the seven parties and the Maoist rebels, signed in New Delhi in November 2005, the Maoists agreed to return properties seized “in an unjust manner.” What is a “just” or “unjust” manner remains a subject of debate. Local Maoist cadres have refused to return the seized properties of several hundred rich landowners, but allowed small landholders to return to their villages.

The Maoist rank-and-file say distributing land of rich landowners was a way to empower the landless poor, and so returning the land to its previous owners will disappoint their constituency, make the people feel cheated, and might lead them to switch sides, reducing the support base of the party. They have begun asking their own leaders how could they kill the spirit of the revolution by returning the land?

Nepal watchers say that with the exception of Mr. Koirala, who continues to insist the elections will be held sometime in November, all other parties and civic leaders now suspect the election of a Constituent Assembly will never take place — recalling that a similar promise in 1951 never materialized, because of monarchical machinations.

Barsha Man Pun, also known as Ananta, deputy commander of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army, threatened on May 5 that if there cannot be Constituent Assembly elections, and the Legislative-Parliament fails to declare the country a republic, “We, too, are not bound to stay in cantonments or continue to stick to our previous agreements.”

Analysts say declaring Nepal a republic through parliamentary decree requires a political will on the part of the Nepali Congress party, but its leader, Mr. Koirala, is speaking tongue-in-cheek because of his love for ceremonial monarchy, since the latter could be an effective shield for Mr. Koirala’s party against the communists. In fact, the late B.P. Koirala, founder of the Nepali Congress party, the first elected prime minister in 1959, and elder brother of the current prime minister, realized this long ago when he said that his and the king’s neck were “welded together.”

Constitutional analysts say the interim constitution needs to be amended right away to allow the government to fix a new date for Constituent Assembly elections and to allow the Legislative-Parliament to abolish the monarchy.

Maoists think they see a conspiracy in delaying the elections hatched by “international forces in league with domestic monarchical reactionaries placed within the seven parties.” They think the intent is to keep intact the network of monarchical old boys and characterize Mr. Koirala as the long hand of the United States.

Meanwhile, civil unrest and violence in the countryside are on the rise, prompting the U.S. State Department to issue a travel advisory on May 7, saying: “Violent clashes between Maoists and indigenous groups have taken place in recent months in the Terai region, along the southern border with India, in one case resulting in 27 deaths. Ethnic tensions in the Terai region have spawned violent clashes with police, strikes, demonstrations and closures of the border with India. The U.S. Embassy strongly recommends against non-essential travel to this region. Clashes between Maoists and groups who oppose them also recently have extended into Katmandu.”

The ethnic civil unrest has spread throughout Nepal, a country inhabited by nearly 90 ethnic groups. A coalition of hill tribes has demanded federal restructuring of the state on ethnic lines, with the right to self-determination and proportional representation in the interim constitution before elections to the Constituent Assembly. It has called for nationwide protests starting May 17 and a general strike on June 1, 10 and 11.

The Madhesis have been agitating since mid-January, demanding autonomy. They have clashed with police as well as former Maoist militias now called the Young Communist League (YCL). The clashes have claimed nearly 60 lives, including those of 27 Maoists, and damaged Nepal’s economy.

Analysts say the peace process in Nepal has become a hostage of the government’s failure to hold elections. The Maoists have refused until Nepal is declared a republic to cooperate the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) for the second stage of verification of their cadres, a new date for election is scheduled, living conditions in the U.N. supervised cantonments are improved and salaries and job guarantees to the combatants are assured.

The U.N. representative Ian Martin says the Maoists’ obligation to allow verification is unconditional and that the UNMIN cannot accept its linkage to any precondition.

Analysts say the rising civil unrest, political bickering, parliamentary disruptions, and a decreasing level of political communication within the Eight-Party caucus indicate a diminishing chance for elections to a Constituent Assembly anytime this year. The situation appears to be ripe for yet another uprising that could settle the leftover issues of last year’s unfinished revolution, namely, abolition of the monarchy and the passing of power to the Maoists, now rechristened “republican democrats.”

Chitra Tiwari can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]verizon.net

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