Deadlock in Nepal

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

With Prime Minister G.P. Koirala refusing to step down as demanded by the agitating Opposition, the political situation in Nepal continues to be grim.

WITH the stubbornness characteristic of most politicians, Nepalese Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala has refused to step down despite sustained demands from both the Opposition and a sizable section of the parliamentary wing of his own Nepali Congress (N.C.). And Koirala's refusal is certainly costing the tiny, landlocked Himalayan kingdom dear. Strikes, rallies, roadblocks (chakka jams in local parlance) and disruption of power supply have all become features of everyday life, especially in Kathmandu, the capital. The Prime Minister's office at the Singha Durbar was picketed and the main Opposition, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), and five smaller Left parties boycotted for a long period the just concluded winter session of Parliament. According to a survey, tourism, Nepal's biggest industry, loses (Indian) Rs.25 million for every day of shutdown.

The Opposition and Koirala's opponents in the N.C. want him out but do not want mid-term polls. Krishna Prashad Oli, a standing committee member of the CPN(UML), said: "We are not asking for mid-term elections. All that we have been saying is that the N.C. should give the country a proper alternative to Koirala. We have given the responsibility to find that alternative to the N.C. and Koirala."

But the question is, should a democratically elected Prime Minister who still commands a majority - however thin it may be - in Parliament step down just because those who do not like him or his party want him to do so? And will the charges of bad governance and corruption against his government stick? And will his ouster, some newspaper editorials have said, be good for the country?

While these questions remain, the people continue to suffer. The unemployment rate is at its highest, there is a shortfall in economic benefits despite economic reforms and the privatisation of public enterprises, and there have been delays in setting up key national projects. But on top of the political crisis and the social unrest is the Maoist-led rural insurgency, which escalated in March and April (Frontline, May 11, 2001). Over 70 policemen were killed in separate attacks on police outposts at Rukum, Dailekh, Dolakha, Palpa and Rautahat districts.

Maoist rebels also set off explosions at the Kathmandu homes of a former N.C. lawmaker and a former Inspector-General of Police. In a signed statement issued by Prachanda, the recently elected chairman of the Nepal Communist Party (Maoist), the group not only claimed responsibility for the killings of policemen but stated that the movement had reached a new high with these successful attacks.

Koirala, who is also president of the N.C., came to office a year ago after pulling the rug from under the feet of his colleague Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. According to the Opposition parties and the dissident N.C. camp, Koirala has failed to deliver on any of the three promises - providing good governance, maintaining law and order and clamping down on corruption in high places - he made when he took over.

The rival N.C. faction has only 45 to 46 MPs - not enough to snatch the mantle from the N.C's 113-strong parliamentary wing. But according to Bhattarai, the process to garner the support of at least 57 MPs was already on and would "hopefully be accomplished before the start of the summer session (in June) of Parliament".

The non-fulfilment of the three promises - the very same ones used by Koirala to oust his predecessor - certainly rankles. According to Kirti Nidhi Bista, a former Prime Minister, the ruling N.C. which came to power in the general elections held two years ago on the plank of stability, peace and development, has only been able to offer "insecurity, (political) instability and failed development programmes". And worse, the party has been racked by dissidence, with Koirala and Bhattarai engaged in a tug-of-war to wrest control of the organisation.

If good governance has been a mere slogan of the Koirala government, security concerns, most notably the six-year-old Maoist insurgency, have left people, especially in the midwestern reaches of the country, terror-stricken. The rebels, taking advantage of the pitiable social conditions and abject poverty of the rural masses, have in recent times become a potent political force in several districts. They have even announced the formation of provisional "people's governments" in districts like Rolpa, Rukim, Kalikot, Jajarkot and Salyan. The government's counter-insurgency plan, in the form of the Integrated Security and Development Programme, in which the Nepalese Army plays a major role, has not worked in the absence of support from the Left parties.

The Maoists want, among other things, the scrapping of the Constitution, an end to the multi-party parliamentary system and elected governments and the establishment of a popular republic to be run by a "people's government". They also oppose the Koirala government's recent ordinance authorising the formation of an Armed Police Force and the appointment of regional administrators.

Efforts by the Palace, human rights activists and the government (through the People's Committee for Peace Dialogue) to initiate talks between the government and the rebels have not succeeded. The rebels have accused the government of failing to create a favourable environment for dialogue by releasing their comrades who are in custody. The Maoists - and human rights activists - have also accused the government of placing under arrest and then killing several people known to have been sympathetic to the rebel cause. Even the Commission constituted to probe the incidents of killing and arson at Khara village in Rukum district (around 30 houses of N.C. supporters were allegedly set on fire by the police in a reported bid to defame the Maoists) is to be headed by the same police officer who is alleged to have masterminded the attack.

For Koirala, however, an even bigger headache is institutionalised corrution. A controversy rages over a deal that the government-owned Royal Nepal Airline Corporation (RNAC) signed with the Austrian airline Lauda Air for the lease of a wide-bodied Boeing 767 last year. As part of the wet lease, the RNAC would have to pay Lauda Air $3,350 per hour of flying time, with a minimum of 300 hours a month. In addition, the boarding and lodging expenses of the flight crew have to be borne by the RNAC.

The CPN(UML) and other Oppos-ition parties have alleged that the deal was not only unnecessary but inimical to the interests of the national carrier. They have accused Koirala of receiving a share of the commission that was allegedly paid. The N.C. and the Opposition parties have crossed swords over the issue, with the Opposition insisting on Koirala's resignation. Said Rajendra Pandey, CPN(UML) MP from Dhading: "The RNAC is losing nearly Rs. (Indian) 200 million a year because of the Lauda Air deal. Just the expenses of the flight crew adds up to $21,000 a month."

Two commissions are already probing the deal, one ordered by the Supreme Court and another by the constitutional body that functions as an anti-corruption watchdog, the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA). Koirala's public statement that he would immediately step down if the CIAA implicated him has not placated the Opposition. According to observers, the CIAA is most likely to opt for one of the three options before it: summon Koirala for interrogation, spare the Prime Minister but file a case against other officials including the then Tourism Minister, or dismiss the case.

Interestingly, a former executive chairman of the RNAC, Hari Bhakta Shrestha, and RNAC board member Tirtha Lal Shrestha, who were both behind the deal, have filed petitions before the CIAA urging it to investigate the deal impartially. They expressed the fear that they would be made scapegoats. They have since been arrested.

But the Left parties lack unity among themselves, which factor has helped the Prime Minister to hold on to power. But Sher Bahadur Deuba, a former Prime Minister who is being propped up by Bhattarai to replace Koirala, feels that the summer session of Parliament would see Koirala being isolated by his own party. He said: "Koirala has not been able to solve the problems related to security, governance or corruption. He talks of unity in the N.C. But there is a lot of difference between talking of unity and doing something about it." The Bhattarai faction is convinced that there is no way out but to replace Koirala.

While the leftists aver that organising chakka jams is the only way to force Koirala out, Bhattarai told Frontline that he and his faction would rather wait for Koirala to lose his majority in Parliament rather than hold the nation to ransom.

With Koirala unlikely to move out unless the CIAA comes out with a verdict finding him guilty or he loses majority support in Parliament, the situation in Nepal could continue to be unstable.

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