Nepal: On The Verge Of Collapse?

For those who haven’t noticed, Nepal is in a mess. Its prime minister, Madhav Kumar Nepal, resigned over six months ago and parliament has yet to decide on a successor, despite the fact that in the last nine elections, there’s only been one candidate. On January 12, just before they were going to hold the 17th fruitless attempt, it was decided to drop the whole thing.

Even if a new process is quickly cobbled together and a proper government put in place, that is only the start of the problems. The three main parties need to agree on a new constitution by May (which has already been extended from last May) and decide what to do with the 19,600 Maoist fighters left over from the 10-year insurgency, who are currently living in seven cantonments and 21 camps spread around the country.

The UN Mission to Nepal (UNMIN) had been monitoring these camps and the decommissioning process, but its mandate runs out this weekend and there has been hardly any progress on integrating those fighters into the Nepalese Army (who never wanted them in the first place), as ordered under the 2006 accord. UNMIN chief Karin Landgren warned the Security Council last week that continued lack of progress could lead to an army coup, a seizure of power by the president, or even a return to civil war.

Below is an interview I conducted with Anagha Neelakantan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Kathmandu. For those who don’t follow the insane mess of Nepalese politics, the main political players in this tragedy/farce are:

Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist): Known as the UCPN-M, or simply Maoists, they came out of the jungle in 2006 and swarmed to victory in the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections, but angrily stropped into opposition a year later when their plans for ‘democratising’ the army were blocked. They are the main proponents of a new constitution and are reluctant to fully hand over control of their People’s Liberation Army (PLA) until they are sure some political progress is being made.

Nepali Congress (NC): The grand old party of Nepal. They reluctantly accepted the Maoists into parliament and the abolition of the monarchy as the price of ending the civil war. But they were not pleased when the Maoists refused to share power with them after the 2008 elections and they fear that a Maoist-inspired constitution would undermine traditional patronage networks. They have the backing of the Nepalese Army, who don’t want to be swamped with former enemies.

Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist): Or UML for short. They are somewhere in the middle. They are heading the government, in coalition with the NC, but a sizeable chunk of the party backs the Maoist cause. Nonetheless, they all share concerns about the Maoist PLA and want to see it brought under state control.

Here's the interview:


ME: It seems to me that at the heart of the crisis is a basic conflict between the Maoists and the NC which looks pretty impossible to resolve. They were able to agree on the abolition of the monarchy, and since then not much else, while the UML is itself divided about which side to follow. What is your assessment?

Anagha: That is right up to a point. These are the three major parties and as such they make the big decisions, but it’s also helpful to think of the polarisation in substantive terms, because there are other actors and interests - parts of the Indian establishment, the Nepal Army, sections of civil society and royalists - who might not be at the negotiating table, but who still influence the dynamic and the different ways of defining the needs and incentives of the current crisis.

The differences of opinion are in some senses about sequencing. Can there be promulgation of, or even agreement on, the critical points of the new constitution as long as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) remains under control of the UCPN? Should the Maoists be given a way back into power-sharing before or after they “give up” control of the PLA?

Of course, each of the parties has at various points talked about resolving all of the contentious issues as a single ‘package’. The assumption seems to be that this would balance out compromises in a way that pleases everyone. But perhaps instead of trying to please everyone, an effective package deal would probably have to be one that makes all actors grumpy.
There are also basic differences of definition. The term “peace process” has been used as shorthand, but it now means different things to different people. For some, this is the time to make good on the commitments in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (signed in April 2006) - draft a new constitution to restructure the state, address the historical exclusion and marginalisation of various groups, address the remnants of the war (integration and rehabilitation of the PLA, democratisation of the Nepal Army prosecution for war-era crimes, etc), get the Maoists to renounce violence completely, accept the Maoists as a major political force. This path needs there has to be good faith on all sides towards the commitments in the peace agreement, and for Nepali actors to balance geopolitical pressures, their personal and ideological ambitions, and the clearly expressed desires of many groups in Nepal for progressive change. Traditional parties would have to limit their resistance to the idea of a re-definition of the state and the relationship of elites to it, while the Maoists would have to re-calibrate their quest for a radical redistribution of power and resources. A simplistic espousal of this vision equates the Maoists with all progressive change, ignoring the rise of strong identity-based movements and groups.

For others, the peace process is about “mainstreaming” the Maoists, i.e. getting them to explicitly renounce violence and dismantle the PLA with or without integration of some combatants explicitly renouncing violence; and co-opt them into “standard” democratic practices, including collusion with the existing networks of patronage ands privilege that spread across all spheres of public life. In this line of thought, the peace process is about the Maoists, and the new constitution and particularly the promise of federalism and far-reaching political, economic and social inclusion, are not a priority. Monitoring of the Nepal Army is no longer necessary, and its “democratisation” not as far-reaching or urgently needed as was generally thought. It is the brave (and far-right) politician who will today speak out against the idea of a new constitution, but there is certainly a great deal of discomfort with the changes it is meant to institutionalise, which would challenge and complicate traditional privilege.

There is also an assessment that the Maoists will not go back to war under any circumstances, which is possibly true given how much a part of the open political landscape they have become, and the gains they stand to lose. India’s foreign policy priorities for 2011 appear to reflect this attitude. New Delhi is reportedly encouraging “free and fair elections in Nepal”, not integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants or a new constitution. There’s a sense that this transition has gone on too long, and that things need to return to normal, that is, the status quo ante, but with the addition of the Maoists as a regular political party.

For the Maoists, it’s something in between - how to balance their radical aspirations and the need to deliver on their promises of change to their constituencies, with participation in mainstream politics and membership in the processes that tie them irrevocably to the state.

Finally, there are hardliners on all sides who would support a return to conflict, or use that fear to entrench themselves even further, particularly sections of the Nepal Army, royalists and the UCPN-M. The knotting together of daily politics and bigger questions of reform and political and social inclusion is a real stumbling block at this point. Finally, many of the differences between and within parties are about personal ambition.


What effect do you think the departure of UNMIN will have? Does army integration have to happen for a new constitution to go ahead, or can that wait until after the political situation has settled?

I see very little chance of the new constitution being promulgated or big issues such as federalism being agreed upon as long as the PLA remains under control of the party. The NC, in particular, but also a significant part of the UML, argues that the intention was always to complete integration and rehabilitation before constitution-drafting, in order to level the playing field. But as is the case for other commitments, the original agreements are not always explicit about the timeframe for this or the sequence. The mainstream parties are resistant to the idea of the Maoists returning to government while the party’s army is intact, and of course they do not want the PLA to be around ahead of the next general election (which would follow a new constitution).

The parties are (characteristically) at the last minute discussing what to do when UNMIN leaves. The Security Council is due to deliberate and pass a resolution on the (end of) the Mission on the 14th. If there is no agreement, as seems likely, then potentially, both the armies are suddenly under no regime of monitoring and restrictions. Given the NA’s moments of assertion over the past 15 months, the political isolation of the Maoists, and potentially restive and frustrated combatants, this could be a fraught moment in the peace process. 

The Maoists say (and the caretaker government insists) they will cede control of it to the Special Committee (which has representation from the parties and the security forces), but the issue first is whether there can be agreement on the numbers and modalities for integration of Maoist combatants into the state security forces. At the same time, the other parties are arguing forcefully that the NA should no longer be monitored. The Maoists disagree equally forcefully.

Ideally, the parties would swiftly re-negotiate their obligations under the peace accord and the Agreement on Monitoring of the Management of Arms and Armies (November 2006). There have often been last-minute decisions or commitments on a number of issues, such as the extension of the Constituent Assembly in May 2010 (when the parties missed the deadline for drafting a new constitution) and then the agreement in September 2010 that allowed one more renewal of UNMIN’s mandate. Ironically, these agreements dealt with a number of the same issues that are at stake now, such as power-sharing, transfer of control of the Maoist army to the Special Committee, and reduced restrictions on the NA. And [Maoist leader] Prachanda, when he was prime minister two years ago, said to PLA fighters cantoned in his home district of Chitwan that they were henceforth under the committee. 

Maoist leaders have said that the failure to retain UNMIN or create an effective successor would amount to a “return to the ceasefire situation”. This should not, in my opinion, be taken as an indication of a readiness to return to war, despite the vigorous calls for a “people’s revolt” from some quarters of the party. There does not seem to be, from reports from the cantonments, any instruction or desire to leave the cantonments immediately if all monitoring ends on 16 January. What the Maoists mean by “people’s revolt” remains unclear, though it is widely understood to be along the lines of urban unrest. 

Vocal critics of UNMIN say that the Maoists have been “hiding behind” the UN, and that the Mission itself is biased. Generally, this is the same constituency which argues that all the responsibility for taking the overall process forward lies with the Maoists, so it’s not exactly the most balanced view. But there is a clear line of thinking in some quarters that the parties became complacent due to the UN presence here and acted as if they had all the time in the world to sort out these issues, which delayed their resolution. And it’s certainly true that UNMIN’s limited mandate meant that the Mission had a very light monitoring footprint,
no enforcement authority and oversight of only a limited part of the process; and there was also no comparable national monitoring body with these powers, which was one of the flaws in the architecture of the process as a whole. Limitations aside, though, the critical ingredient UNMIN contributed was the mechanism to resolve disputes between the two armies. Unlike the Special Committee, this had representation from the NA and Maoist army, but not from political parties, and it went a considerable distance to keep the peace (it resolved some 100 PLA-NA disagreements), even when the politics was at its most polarised, and the NA at its most restive.  
The Maoists have to judge very carefully whether it is worthwhile to withhold concessions at this point. Their six-day shutdown across the country in May 2010 had no impact on the balance of power or the strength of the state, and war does not seem a realistic prospect at this point. It’s true that even if they were to make such a move, there is no guarantee they would win control of the government, or even that there would be agreement on integration. But that does not mean there is no incentive for them to make the first move. Reserving political capital and regaining credibility could help push for a constitution that includes federalism, and rehabilitate the party’s image somewhat with voters from the middle classes, political competitors and New Delhi ahead of the next general election.

The other risk factor is the Nepal Army. This caretaker government seems dead set on the Special Committee’s Secretariat taking over monitoring of the cantonments, and the Maoists disagree. The government has also suggested that with UNMIN’s departure, the broader framework of the peace process, including the Arms and Armies Agreement no longer holds when UNMIN leaves. Given that the Maoists have already in principle made a political commitment to hand over control of their army, the government could argue that it was justified in forcing monitoring of the cantonments. In this reading, the NA is no longer restricted in any way and could therefore be deployed, say for the security of Secretariat/ Special Committee members in or around the cantonments. The Maoists would certainly see that as provocation. 


What happens next? Is there a real risk of some sort of coup?

If the political deadlock continues, and enough parties request the President [Ram Baran Yadav] to step in, he will have no compunction in doing so, as long as the request is made publicly. He and his office have done a good job of rehabilitating his image in the past year, at least in part to play down the idea that he could be the front for a military takeover. In any case, he has few sources of power of his own and could rely on the army if necessary. It is difficult to imagine a situation in which an absolute takeover is tolerated for any length of time even by the NC and UML, let alone the fractious, heavily politicised civil society. So if there were to be President’s rule, it could well end up being for a short period, during which time the parties would engineer some sort of consensus. As long as there was minimal infringement on political rights, it could be tolerated (though not enthusiastically accepted) by much of the international community.

The problem is, that unless if there is a comprehensive and negotiated discussion on the timelines and status of the peace agreements and the mechanisms associated with them, revision of the peace treaties, is that even if there is no military takeover, or presidential coup or direct confrontation, there is still no guarantee there will be a broadly acceptable new constitution. It would be difficult to pull off another last-minute extension of the deadline as they did in May last year. Many parties are desperate to see the back of this transitional period and the promises of reform they made in 2006. The demands to share power are too great and public disillusionment too strong.

One possibility, which more conservative actors are calling for, is the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the promulgation of a ‘framework’ constitution, which would leave some of the big, contentious questions to a specially appointed, technical committee. This could also result in fresh elections, which without a new constitution in place will probably be more fractious and sharply contested than the 2008 election by the Maoists and identity-based parties.

At this stage, it is hard to tell whether there will be a new constitution in May. The really difficult questions of state restructuring and forms of governance have not been properly discussed, but many politicians remember that it took a relatively short time to draft the last constitution in 1991 and see that as evidence that all is not lost. (Of course, that wasn’t the strongest constitution – it was deliberately ambiguous on the limits of the king’s powers, and lacked strong measures to promote inclusion).


There is strong opposition to federalisation of Nepal from various parties - why are the Maoists so keen on federalism, and is there room for compromise? 

There is opposition from some sectors of some parties, as well as some small, generally (but not exclusively) pro-royalist parties to federalism. Other than the Maoists and the Madheshi parties, few other parties seem to have a clearly articulated model they are willing to table for discussion in the Constituent Assembly. But, as I said above, it is very difficult for the major parties and their leaders to oppose federalism without paying a political price. In the 2008 elections, the NC lost out majorly because of its waffling on federalism to the new Madheshi parties in the Terai. Even now, some Madheshi parties will not back certain candidates for prime minister because of reservations these people might have expressed about federalism. It’s true that there has been no comprehensive public discussion of the implications and options and there is a great deal of misunderstanding and misapprehension. But it would be dangerous to underestimate the political value of federalism to ethnic groups such as the Madheshis, Tharus and Limbus, and the radicalisation and mobilisation associated with that.

For more on the issue of federalism, read the ICG's comprehensive report released today. Many thanks to Anagha for her views.

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