by Nic Watkins
Nepal suffered a traumatic Maoist insurgency from 1996 to 2006. Since the end of the civil war the country has faced a long struggled to entrench democracy and fulfil the promise of a fairer and more equal society that initially led the country into armed conflict. The end of war was replaced by the less glamorous political wrangling that has seen Nepal neglected by the international spotlight. With elections on the horizon, an opportunity has arisen to tackle the enduring issues.
In its latest blog series, ISIS Europe hopes to draw attention to those countries that once used to be at the centre of attention of media and policy-makers, but that have recently been overshadowed by other topical conflicts.
The Constitutional Assembly (CA), elected after the end of war has as yet been unable to decide upon a permanent constitution for the country. Federalism remains the stumbling block, and is complicated with a fiery mix of ethnic identities and political party power games. As the frustration grows exponentially against the delays in the process, could the most committed Maoists return to the jungle and reignite their armed conflict?
During the civil war more than 15000 people were killed and an estimated 150,000 people were internally displaced. The Maoist had taken up arms against traditional political parties and the role of the monarchy, stemming from government repression and apathy towards key groups in Nepal including women, Dalit’s (those at the bottom of the Caste system), ethnic groups and the oppressed classes. Maoist attacks and ambushes were met with severe crackdowns and human rights (HR) abuses by the Nepali authorities. In 2005 King Gyanendra seized full control of the government in attempts to end the insurgency. This was met with widespread public strikes and pro-democracy demonstrations lasting for weeks. Agreements were eventually reached between the Maoists and the major political parties to end war and the reign of the monarchy. Early optimism has given way to frustrations and apathy as the feelings of dissatisfaction remains as many of the issues still unaddressed.
Four years of effort by the CA to create a new constitution ended in “collective failure” in May 2013 when the time limit finally ran out. Nepal is currently under ad-hoc rule with the Chief Justice effectively overseeing the government. In most situations this should be condemned but in Nepal it seems to be the only satisfactory position that will allow the important next phase, elections in November. The barrier to agreement remains the issue of Ethnic Federalism but many hope elections will provide a mandate and fresh impetus to the constitution creation process.
There is a real concern that the drive for federalism comes not from grass root longings but from political party manoeuvres. The people’s war was fought for democracy not federal powers. As the central government is deadlocked and parties look to blame each other, in a self perpetuating spiral this message is twisted into ethnic problems and the parties look to increase central power by consolidating ethnic power bases.
The political parties are failing the population; rather than working together to construct a constitution to unite the country, they are breaking it apart in order to control their own piece of it. Federalism may sow lasting divisions between ethnic groups that may lead to renewed cycles of violence. Imagining briefly that agreement can be made on federalism, what form would this take? Trying to divide a country of 30 million people between 100 different ethnic and linguistic groups into federal states with distinct identities in an environment where consensus is really achieved is enough to make the greatest optimist tremble and that’s before deciding the power each state will have or examining the rights of each citizen.
The party politics are intriguing. Reading literature and analysing rhetoric it is often difficult to distinguish between the parties in a congested political environment, with similar ideas radiating from the different parties. All look to appeal to people power and the creation of a people’s democracy, based on a capitalist and social democratic values. But each uses a different ideological ‘branding’ to convey this message. The disastrous attempts to build democracy, consolidate the countries future and claim the democratic windfull have left aall sides are struggling to claim popular support for their position, with each laying the blame on the others for the collapse of the process. In a country in which 25 per cent live below the poverty line (World Bank) failure to grasp economic improvements is breeding resentment and apathy towards political parties. Many issues remain from the conflict, the National Human Rights Commission is looking into all reports of HR abuses including thousands of disappearances during the conflict and a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission is also expected in the next few years. Parties are still to agree fully the terms of reintegration of Maoist cadres.
The 2008 elections saw the Maoists gain the most seats after a combination of capitalizing on public good will for there sacrifices in their struggle during the peoples war coupled with their mobilization of indoctrinated supporters from their occupied territories. Their messages of people power has an ability to cross ethnic and regional lines and they will hope to do well again in November but it’s likely they will take a lot of the responsibility for the slow progress since the last election. Attempts have been made by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (UCPN-M) hierarchy, to address this perceived position by showing a willingness to conceded, including reducing the number of Maoist cadre to be included in the army. This however appears to have backfired, causing splits in party, with the hardliner element creating a new faction, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN-M) that is guaranteed to split the Maoist vote. Any threats of violence in relation to the elections by the CPN-M will damage both factions and guarantees to split the Maoist vote.
The Terai are an emerging political force from the hill lands close to the Indian border. They are likely to be unbeatable in their home region and this local power based will transfer to an important national one. The two remaining parties come from the old establishment. The Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist−Leninist) (CPN-UML). Both struggled at the last elections people and oppose ethnic federalism as it will undermine their traditional base of support. Both rely in Brahmin backers (who dominate public life but make up only a third of the population) and a central power base in the cities.
There is a real danger of electoral violence. If previous actions are anything to go by, parties will not be afraid to mobilise their activist at grass levels to gain an unfair advantage on polling day. Each part has affiliated youth wings hat are incredibly influential groups and carry out the party hierarchy orders. The Youth Communist League (YCL) have been implicated in numerous illegal activities and shut down universities and academics that have not cooperated with their demands.
Nepal is squeezed in between two of the world’s super powers in India and China and both counties excerpt there own pressures onto Nepal. China opposes ethnic federalism with concerns that Tibet, just across the border may get similar ideas. India has by far the biggest influence and maintains a strong pressure on internal issues. Maoist groups inside India still pose a threat and the Indian government is desperate to restart the constitution and democratisation. Its old ties with Nepali Congress and recent deal with the Maoists may allow them to speed up the constitutional process.
The European Union (EU) has established a permanent delegation to Nepal and the new Ambassador to Nepal, Ms. Rensje Teerink, began in October, 2013. The EU-Nepal Co-operation Agreement established in 1996 has set the agenda common concern such as peace and stability, development, human rights and trade. The EU is the biggest provider of development aid to Nepal, including over €72.2 million of humanitarian operations since 2001. The EU has confirmed that it will deploy an election observation mission to observe the elections. After accusations of foul play last time around and the country at such and crucial crossroads, support to this process will be crucial.