Unending crisis

Print edition : November 22, 2002

With the dissolution of Parliament and the elected local bodies and with an unrepresentative and `unconstitutional' government in front, the political parties of Nepal are desperately in search of a role.

Nepal's newly appointed Prime Minister Lokendra Bahadur Chand.-BINOD JOSHI/AP

IN Kathmandu, the old `Panchas' of the discredited, autocratic Panchayat system are coming out of the shadows, writing impatient obituaries of multi-party democracy in Nepal for a widening public opinion that is shedding few tears for the marginalisation of political parties. King Gyanendra's October 4 coup the dismissal of the elected government and the appropriation of all executive powers has set in motion a sequence of events that has resulted in the virtual suspension of the Constitution, the bypassing of political parties, and the creation of a `front' government; a constitutional monarch is now vested with all initiative.

Top leaders of the two dominant political parties, the Nepali Congress (N.C.) and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (UML), had decried the King's move as undemocratic and unconstitutional, but with popular support vitiated by 12 years of self-seeking misgovernance, the leaders have preferred reconciliation to confrontation. The refrain of the UML and the N.C. is: "The King must rectify the constitutional errors".

But with the King taking a leaf out of his father King Mahendra's book of absolute rule, and being more inclined to sow dissension and manage the six mainstream parties, street agitation may become their only option for democratic survival. In Nepal today, as former Minister in the N.C. government Chakra Prasad Bastola observed, "there are two extra-constitutional centres of power, the Palace and the Maoists". With Parliament and the elected local bodies dissolved and an unrepresentative and `unconstitutional' government in front, the political parties are desperately in search of a role.

The process of formation of the interim government reflected how the King held all the cards. In total disregard of the representatives of the six parties in the dissolved Parliament who were clamouring for a collective audience to shape the formation of an all-party interim government, the King chose to take off for his palace in Gorkha. On his return on the eve of the 10-day Dasein holiday, the King did agree to meet them, but individually, before announcing a new government constituting people with a clean image and no electoral ambitions. The King picked individuals, undermining party discipline, as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, three-time Prime Minister Lokendra Bahadur Chand from the conservative Rastriya Prajatantra Party and poached Badri Prasad Mandal from the National Sadhbhavna Party (NSP) of the Terai . The other seven nominated in the Council of Ministers were professionals and social workers. Most crucially, the King said nothing about transferring executive powers to the government. No mention was made of a date for holding elections. Incidentally, the King sacked the Sher Bahadur Deuba government because of its failure to hold elections within six months of dissolving Parliament.

Prime Minster Chand said his five-point mandate included creating an environment conducive to developing a national consensus to solve the Maoist problem; the institutional development of multiparty democracy by holding elections at the earliest, and carrying further the anti-corruption drive. However, Chand is finding it hard to win the cooperation of the political parties. Deuba was the first to denounce the formation of the government as `unconstitutional', followed by the UML and the N.C., with the RPP and the NSP equivocating.

The King had invoked Article 127 of the 1990 Constitution to dismiss the Deuba government and to appoint the Chand government. Article 127 provides for residual powers to the King to intervene and untangle a constitutional impasse and submit it before Parliament for approval. It was Deuba who had approached the King and asked him to invoke Article 127. On the basis of an all-party consensus, he informed the King that elections could not be held as scheduled on November 13 and that they must be postponed for a year because of the Maoist insurgency. Instead under Article 127, the King dismissed the government, assumed executive powers and again under Article 127 appointed the Chand government. Legal experts have deemed the exercise of Article 127 as tantamount to rendering the 1990 Constitution defunct.

The 1990 Constitution was the fruit of the pro-democracy struggle and reflected the tussle between the Palace and the democratic forces over where sovereignty lies. The practice of multi-party democracy was expected to remove the ambiguities inherent in the Constitution over the King's status, but as political scientist Lok Raj Baral observed, "in the 12 years of multi-party democracy, self-seeking politicians have repeatedly looked to the King to intervene in their power games, giving the King a quasi-constitutional status." Deuba has come in for a lot of plainspeaking about his own unconstitutional decisions. The self-criticism of the political parties may be too late to save the power balance in the Constitution.

Constitutional expert Purna Man Sakhya told Frontline that "the Constitution stands suspended since the day of the dismissal of the Deuba government and will be revived only when there is an elected government. Whatever happens now is extra-constitutional." N.C. president Girija Prasad Koirala insists that the N.C. will not take part in the Chand government. "It not only has no power but its composition too is peculiar. We can't be expected to join him."

UML strongman Madhav Kumar Nepal maintains: "We cannot join the Cabinet, nor will we cooperate with it until the mistakes are corrected by the constitutional monarch." Madhav Kumar Nepal, who had been lured by the prospect of taking advantage of the discomfiture of the UML's rival, the N.C., to form the new government (before the King nominated Chand), is personally still inclined to pursue an accommodative line. Shyam Srestha, Editor of Mulyankan, argues that "the UML is trying to find a loophole a respectable way of getting into the government". The UML is harping on Article 128 as enabling the formation of an all-party government, that is, one comprising leaders of the parties represented in the dissolved Parliament. Constitutional experts have clarified that Article 128 was a transitional one meant to legitimise the action of an interim government constituted before the Constitution came into force. The UML is still clinging to the `spirit' of Article 128 as a way out. However, increasing pressure from the districts and from Central Committee members is pushing the UML to pursue a harder, agitationist line. It is the district-level workers of the UML and the N.C. who have constituted the frontline democratic force targeted by the Maoists.

On the part of the N.C. too there is a visible shift towards more plain-speaking. Senior N.C. leader Ram Chandra Poudel said at a recent Youth Congress meeting that "there is no doubt that the King wants to take back sovereignty and state power". Koirala was equally blunt: "The parties have no faith in the King and the King has no faith in the political parties. The two institutions distrust each other," he said. Koirala has revived the theory of a `grand design' at work insinuating that the design reaches to the royal massacre.

The N.C.'s refrain is that the dissolved Parliament be reinstated, but, as Koirala explains, the need of the hour is political and not constitutional solutions. The new transformative policy option that has entered the party agenda is an elected Constituent Assembly flagged by a section of the N.C. and backed by the Jamamorcha party. It is also the centrepiece of the Maoist agenda for talks. Argues Bastola who floated the idea at a party meeting: "It is not that we want it or don't want it, it is logical. With the Constitution in limbo there is a choice before the King to reactivate the Constitution and make some advances or to meet the Maoist demand for a Constituent Asssembly. The King feels he should have a proactive role and the Maoists also want to change the Constitution. Ironically, it is an opportune convergence. "It's a minority opinion within the Nepali Congress," says its spokesperson Arjun Narsingh. However, as political scientist Krishna Hachhetu noted, its significance lies in the idea being introduced on the political party agenda. In the 1950s, the N.C., negotiating the sharing of power with King Gyanendra's grandfather, King Tribhuvan, agreed to sideline the idea of a Constituent Assembly.

King Gyanendra.-BINOD JOSHI/AP

RHETORIC apart, do the political parties have the capacity to launch a joint struggle for democracy? Hachhetu says: "Give them six months and as the disillusionment with the King's rule sets in - for it cannot be expected that this government will deliver any better grassroots mobilisation will gather strength". Srestha is already looking at the possibility of a four-party coordinated opposition with the N.C. and some smaller Left and progressive parties. However, Bastola is more cynical. "Most of the people in political parties are in a hurry to join the government," he said, singling out the RPP, the NSB and the UML. The RPP, which has several Panchas amongst its top leadership, will pull out of the six-party Opposition and so will the NSB. Political observers in Kathmandu believe that several leaders of these parties are angling for Cabinet posts. It is the King's trump card. King Mahendra made a fine art of managing political parties by dividing and undermining them. Alongside that, the King is pursuing a populist anti-corruption drive aimed at discrediting political figures. Leaders from the UML and the N.C. have been quick to add that in 2002 it is not possible to turn the clock back to an absolute monarchy. They are pinning their hopes on the international community.

With the donor community accounting for more than half of Nepal's development budget, the European Union, Japan and the United States are big players in Nepal. India's overwhelming presence has been overshadowed by a proactive U.S. role, especially after Nepal was put on the world terrorist map. Also, for four months, India has had no Ambassador in Nepal.

Coinciding with the King's nomination of a new government sans executive powers, Kathmandu was playing host to the meeting of the `International Solidarity Group' formed in London in June to support Nepal militarily and developmentally in its fight against the Maoist `terrorists'. British Parliamentary Under-Secretary Mike O' Brien, while emphasising that "Maoist terrorists needed to be defeated at any cost", was circumspect in his comments on internal matters, expressing the hope that democracy will be maintained and elections held within a timeframe. Western donor countries are anxious that a confrontation between the political parties and the King will strengthen the Maoists.

The E.U. said that it "looks forward to improved conditions for peaceful and democratic elections and urges the government to announce quickly new dates for local and general elections." Pressure could increase and weapons supply lines could get blocked. For example, Belgium has indicated that continued postponement of elections could jeopardise the supply of 5,500 automatic weapons.

Nepal's northern neighbour China was among the first to welcome the new government. India responded 10 days after the new government was announced, fuelling speculation about India's `wait and see' approach. Subsequently, Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj, speaking to a visiting delegation of Nepali journalists, expressed support for constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy.

The Maoists remain the wild card in Nepal's new political scene. With the Maoists joining the chorus denouncing the King's move as `unconstitutional' and `undemocratic' and warning against the erosion of the achievements of the 1990 movement, there was speculation about a realignment of political forces the political parties and the Maoists on the one side and the Palace on the other. However, the contradictions between the parliamentary Left and the ultra Left are too strong. Moreover, doubts of back-channel deals between the Palace and the Maoists or the N.C. and the Maoists (or India and the Maoists) have added to the atmosphere of distrust. The UML and the N.C. have warned that a confrontation between the King and the political parties could push the country into the hands of the extreme Right or Left.

Chand, in his first public interaction, announced that the door was open for talks with the Maoists and made a point of not using the term `terrorists'. Koirala was sceptical about the Maoist leadership engaging in talks with an `impotent' and `illegitimate' government. CPN-Maoist leader `Prachanda' responded by calling for a dialogue among all the political forces, including King Gyanendra, and civic society to prepare for elections for a Constituent Assembly that would draft a new Constitution. Padma Ratna Tuladhar, who once brokered a peace between the Maoists and the first Deuba government, found it significant that the Maoists for the first time called for the presence of the institution of monarchy at the proposed round table, as well as civil society.

"With the new government failing to get the support of the mainstream political parties, there is a political vacuum and the Maoists, recognising this, have addressed the institution of the monarchy itself," Tuladhar said. He saw it as a positive move, especially in view of the hard reality that it is the King who controls the Army, and any process to resolve the problem has to address the dimension of the Royal Nepal Army at war with the Maoists. The Army for one is delighted at the King's reassertion of executive control and the marginalisation of the political parties.

Whether the Maoists' offer of talks amounts to anything at all, given the string of earlier such offers, depends now on the King and the Maoists. The Maoists had launched a "people's war' seven years ago to get rid of the monarchy and establish a Left revolutionary regime. Since then they have dropped their Republican demand and focussed on a Constituent Assembly. Three rounds of peace talks collapsed last year with the resumption of conflict in November that for the first time targeted the Army. Army Public Relations Officer Colonel Dileep Gurung told Frontline that "Maoists continue to have the tactical advantage of choosing the time and target of attack. However, one to one in the day time, we have the advantage. At night they exploit our weakness."

While the Maoists were able to score a dramatic attack on the Army camp and police post in the Arghakanchi district headquarters a few months ago, the Army was able to engage the rebels fatally . Army sources blame the police as the weak link in the front against the Maoists. The police, with their .303 rifles, are easily intimidated by the terror tactics of the Maoists; they exhaust their firepower even before the Maoists are within striking distance. The Argakhanchi disaster was because the police front crumbled and rendered the Army vulnerable to a Maoist pincer attack. "We're learning from our reverses and managing fire control better, that is, instead of the usual 100 rounds of ammunition, soldiers are given double that because reinforcements are just not possible".

But intelligence remains weak especially at the local level as commanders seem to ignore the signs of a Maoists assault.

The new political alignments in Kathmandu may havetaken centre stage, but all around, it is the Maoists who are making their presence felt in a chain of successful area-wide bandhs, including one in the Kathmandu valley. Kathmandu remains relatively untouched, but the sporadic bomb explosions, including a bomb attack on the statue of King Mahendra are a grim reminder of the biggest challenge facing Nepal the Maoists.

The King's `coup' has severely rocked the twin pillars of the Nepali polity - constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy. The grand old man of the N.C., B.P. Koirala, once said that the parties and the King are conjoined at the neck. With the two set on a confrontation course, will the Maoists be in a mood for peace talks?

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