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Nepal struggles to shape a government that can govern

Nepal’s politicians, often pegged as excellent engineers of street protests but poor managers of state affairs, averted a political meltdown and clinched a deal this weekend that bought them three more months to sort out issues that have wracked

Nepal’s politicians, often pegged as excellent engineers of street protests but poor managers of state affairs, averted a political meltdown and clinched a deal this weekend that bought them three more months to sort out issues that have wracked the country for three years.

The vaguely worded deal resulted in the term extension of an elected assembly for 90 days, and the promise of resignation by the prime minister. But it was disregarded by analysts who say it offers little in terms of resolving a political deadlock that has impeded constitution-writing and the thorny task of what to do with more than 19,000 former Maoist combatants.

“The first thing the [political] parties are now likely to do is differ on the interpretation of the ambiguous deal that lacks both in details and specifics,” read Monday’s editorial of Republica daily.

Akhilesh Upadhyay, editor of the Kathmandu Post, wrote Monday, “It was the very absence of details in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that led the parties to define contentious post-conflict issues as integration and rehabilitation to suit their own interest.”

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The deal agreed upon by the ruling Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, and the main opposition Nepali Congress stipulates that by August 28, the peace process with Maoist former rebels should be concluded, a first draft of a new constitution be made ready, and a new coalition government representing all major political forces be formed.

For the three years following the election of the assembly, the political parties have been deadlocked on key constitutional provisions such as the political model the country should follow, the method for electing the president and prime minister, the basis for federalism, and the number of combatants to be accommodated by the Army.

But with the amount of political bickering and jostling over these tasks, there is little optimism in Kathmandu that politicians will now put aside their own interests and work toward a larger national interest.

“Given the past track record of political parties, there is little to hope from the deal,” says Yubaraj Ghimire, former editor of the Kathmandu Post.

“Their [parties’] interests converge at one point: prolonging the life of the assembly. That’s what they did. And the Maoists have won once again, given the monopoly they have enjoyed in interpreting past agreements,” Mr. Ghimire adds.

The Maoists, who fought a 10-year armed insurgency that ended with the signing of the peace accord, were elected in 2008 as the largest force in the assembly that doubles as parliament. The insurgency cost more than 17,000 lives, according to government’s revised figures.

Their dominant presence in the parliament gives them an edge on rival parties in pushing political agendas. But they don’t command a majority, which explains Nepal’s three coalition governments in as many years.

Sunday’s was the second term extension for the assembly. In May, 2010, the country was pulled back from the brink of the political unknown by extending the assembly’s life for a year. Seven months were then spent in electing a new prime minister, and four months in agreeing on allocation of ministerial berths.

Ending a brutal war just four years ago, the Maoist political party has shown reluctance to fully disband its fighting force, instead keeping it in order to push political concessions. It has complicated political calm by repeatedly missed deadlines to settle the future of their combatants.

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Postponing crisis

Just hours after the assembly’s term was extended after a night-long parliamentary session Sunday morning, interpretation about how and when the prime minister should resign highlighted the hurdles yet to come. The Nepali Congress wanted an immediate resignation, while the ruling parties insisted it should come after a new coalition takes shape.

“Sunday’s deal merely postponed crisis by three months,” says Bhimarjun Acharya, a political columnist and constitutional lawyer.

“The political parties have already started voicing conflicting interpretation of the agreement on the prime minister’s resignation. There is no doubt that they will spend most of the coming months interpreting the wordings of the agreement as suits them,” Mr. Acharya says.

Given the wrangling, Acharya argues that it is time the future of the assembly take a second seat to coming up with a new constitution.

“Our politicians have been cashing in on the widespread public sentiment that dissolution of the assembly would mean disaster. It is time to understand that saving the assembly and saving the peace process are two different things. Since it is clear that the assembly cannot draw up a new constitution, an alternative body has to be thought up,” he says.

Ghimire concurs. “Periodic election is fundamental in democracy. The assembly cannot indefinitely extend its own life. Sadly, the international community has condoned the undemocratic practice by welcoming two extensions of the assembly’s life,” he says.

The European Union, Norway, Switzerland, Japan, and the United Nations Secretary-General have welcomed the assembly’s term extension.