Nepal at a political crossroads

Free elections could produce peace between the government and Maoist rebels.

    Unified? Second left to right, Maoists Prachanda and Bhattara and UML leader Madhav Nepal [AFP]

    Madhav Nepal, leader of the country’s largest party, the Communist Party of Nepal, (UML) has repeatedly blamed Girija Prasad Koirala, the prime minister, for the election delay.


    "I think there was a tendency to not hold elections in June so there was a delay due to that reluctance," he told Al


    He says he is not "fully hopeful" that elections will be held successfully later in the year: "New conspiracies can be hatched and it can go to disturbances and anarchy."


    The opposition leader warned of a repetition of last April's Jana Andolan or People's Movement, which saw three weeks of violent street protests between demonstrators and the army.


    Peace moves ahead


    The election delay has also led to fierce debate whether Nepal should be declared a republic before the constitutional assembly is convened.


    The Maoists have called for the interim parliament to declare a republic immediately in lieu of the election delay, while the UML wants a rapid referendum on the issue


    For its part, the Nepali Congress - the party led by Koirala - has stuck by the previously agreed plan to have the constitutional assembly address the issue at its first convened session.


    But despite party bickering, there has been significant progress towards democratic reforms, many observers agree.


    Most of the king's powers have been stripped away and the peace process has moved ahead. After a ceasefire between the Maoists' Peoples Liberation Army and the Nepal army ended a decade of fierce fighting, a comprehensive peace accord followed last autumn.


    The army has withdrawn from the streets, where it maintained a strong presence last year.


    In January 2007, the Maoists deposited their armaments in containers supervised and monitored by the United Nations. Shortly thereafter, Maoist representatives were given seats in the interim parliament.


    An interim constitution was agreed and finally, at the start of April, five Maoist ministers joined the interim government.


    Slow progress


    Ian Martin, head of UNMIN, the UN's mission to Nepal, told Al "Anyone who looks at it by the standards of how peace processes move forward would be pretty positive."


    The UML has blamed Prime Minister Koirala
    for election day problems [AFP]

    But the mood is less cheerful than it was last year. Narad Bharadwaj, from the Friends for Peace thinktank in Kathmandu, says: "After the ceasefire and peace agreement and weapons management agreement, there was much hope in the air and people expect this time the peace process is permanent ... but there are still so many problems."


    Some of those problems have come in the form of sporadic ceasefire violations reported in remote areas of Nepal.


    "The Maoists signed the agreements but they are still running parallel governments, still abducting people, extorting money ... and the government has not been able to enforce the agreement," Yubraj Ghimire, editor of Kathmandu’s Samay magazine, said.


    Impetus on Maoists


    Martin believes the impetus is on the Maoists to bring about a "significant improvement" in the situation on the ground, adding that their inclusion in the interim government makes them responsible for the security of the country.


    But leading Nepali Congress politician Shekhar Koirala advises patience.


    He agrees that the Maoists must transform their strategies from rebellion to nation-building, but says they should be given time and assistance.


    "Now [in government] they have got to change more. They know that. I always say 'look, they came from the jungle, they've got to be trained'."


    However, the Maoists' slow assimmilation into the political process may not be the only impediment to law and order in Nepal.


    Since January 2007, political turmoil has spawned armed clashed in the southern Terai grasslands near India, where the indigenous Madeshi have demanded better representation ahead of elections.


    In late March, 27 people, mostly Maoists, were killed in a clash with the Madeshi People's Rights Forum over the holding of rival rallies in Gaur in the south.




    Nepal experts believe the country is now at a crossroads between total war and a comprehensive peace bringing in all minorities into the fold.


    Robert Hugins, the information officer at the US embassy in Nepal, told Al "There are two parallel tracks here - on the one hand a peace process that has progressed, and at the same time continued Maoist violence and abuses, real ethnic divisions in the Terai and then all the political challenges." 


    Suvash Darnal, chair of the Jagaran Media Center in Kathmandu, argues that Madeshi demands for greater inclusion and representation in the political process are shared by other ethnic and indigenous groups, including Dalits and Janajatis.


    He urges the government to take seriously popular demands of "republicanism, inclusiveness, and restructuring of the state and society".


    The government seems to be listening, albeit slowly.


    In response to the worsening situation in the south of the country, Kathmandu recently announced it was committed to a federal Nepal. The central government also established a boundaries commission which created new parliamentary constituencies giving the Terai region more MP representation.


    And talks between the government and the Terai Madeshi are imminent, experts believe.


    "Nepal is at a crossroads," journalist Yubraj Ghimire told Al

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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