February 9, 2011 § 1 Comment
The politics of Nepal is one of the most interesting subjects in the world and I could talk about it for hours. And now they finally have a government I have an excuse. I’m going to try not to though; I’ve written too many long essays recently so I’m going to try and keep this brief.
Except I’m probably going to fail because it’s all bloody complicated and really interesting. I’ll keep it simple by only going back about 15 years. Nepal had traditionally been an absolute monarchy, although it had of late under pressure made attempts to introduce a little bit of democracy. The two main democratic forces – who enjoyed an uneasy alliance in opposition to the forces of monarchy – were the centre-left Nepali Congress and the communist Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). However the Monarchy were clearly in charge, and in response to this – and severe economic deprivation – there was a serious Maoist insurrection which started in 1996.
Nepal was split in thirds with the east and west ends firmly under Maoist control, but there was no real chance of the Maoists taking over entirely until 2001. Then there was the massacre. Its still not entirely clear what happened or why: some people claim it was a row over a forbidden marriage, some an undiagnosed case of florid psychosis, and some a plot by Prince (later King) Gyanendra. There is not much about the massacre that isn’t disputed but the facts we can have a reasonable degree of faith in are these: there was a lot of shooting inside the Royal Palace on the night of June 1st; Crown Prince Dipendra was responsible for most, and possibly all, of the shooting; he himself died, probably of a self inflicted gunshot, but before he died nine other senior members of the royal family were also killed; they included the King, the Queen, the former King, another prince and 4 princesses.
The result it that, the king being dead, Crown Prince Dipendra was automatically declared King as he lay brain-dead in a coma and, once the machine was turned off, Prince Gyanendra was the most senior surviving member of the royal family and was declared king. It wasn’t just the insanity of the news, and the unseemly circumstance of crowning an almost certain mass murderer in a permanent vegetative state (no matter how briefly), that made the monarchy so unpopular – and so strengthened the Maoist’s hand. It was more the fact that Gyanendra was a truly truly awful King.
In 2005 Gyanendra declared that Parliament was unfit to handle the Maoist insurgency and made himself Prime Minster. This went about as well as you’d expect and by 2007 the monarchy was abolished by popular protest and in 2008 democratic elections were held which the Maoists won.
Only they didn’t quite win an absolute majority. 575 seats were elected by top up PR and 26 seats were to be nominated by the winners (although in the end it was decided by negotiation to split these up fairly evenly between the bigger parties). The idea is that this parliament would sit for a maximum of two and a half years: a deadline of May 27th. In that time they were to ratify and pass a new constitution and call fresh elections. As I write this, we have 108 days left.
So 601 seats in total – a winning post of 301. The Maoists have 229 seats, the Nepali Congress 115, and the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) 108. Two other reasonably sized parties were elected: the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum, who advocate for greater autonomy for the southern Madhesh people, won 54 seats; and the Tarai-Madhesh Loktantrik Party, a Congress splinter, 24. The remaining 71 seats are split amongst 20 minor parties and two independents. 21 of these seats are split amongst five minor communist parties, the remaining have mostly gone to various centre-right or right wing parties, most of whom are monarchist, but there is also a smattering of ethnic parties and splinters of the smaller parties.
The Maoists formed Nepal’s first republican government with confidence and supply from most other parties. The Maoist leader Prachanda was the first Prime Minister. Congress then elected a President – the Nepali Congress leader Ram Baran Yadav. The idea was that the Prime Minister would be the more powerful figure but various important powers with relation to the army were left with the President.
This proved important when the Maoists had a huge row with the Army. The specific issue was the integration of armed Maoist rebels into the mainstream armed forces – but the Maoists claimed it went deeper than that and was to do with civilian primacy over the military. They claimed the military were operating nation within a nation and enforcing former monarchist power despite the republican’s dominance of parliament.
The Maoists wanted the obstructionist chief of the Army sacked, but President Radav had the power to refuse and did so. And so the Maoists walked out of Government. Their argument was that it was better to be in opposition than to add legitimacy to what they claimed was in effect a military dictatorship. They also reasoned that the absence of the largest party by a factor of two from government would force reform.
The Communist Party of Nepal (UML) formed a government with the support of the Nepali Congress and with the communist Madhav Kumar Nepal as PM. However, without the Maoists involvement government, as expected, lacked legitimacy and whilst there was no movement on civilian primacy over the army Nepali politics remained at an impasse. Nepal himself resigned in June 2009 in a hope of moving the debate along, but all this meant is that there was no government at all – and the deadline for a new constitution crept ever closer. There were 16 attempts to elect a new PM and all 16 were defeated by the Maoists.
Then, last Thursday, with just 115 days to go before the constitution deadline, the Maoists surprised everyone by rejoining the government. Even more surprisingly they did so folliwing secret negotiations which ended with them as the junior partner in a coalition government with the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) who, despite being only half the size, would have the privilege of nominating the PM: new leader Jhala Nath Khanal.
It’s not yet clear exactly what the Maoists game was, but my thoughts – which aren’t that original – would be that they want to make sure constitutional reforms and new elections do at least happen, and have decided the battle over primacy over the army is one that, now that time is short, can best be fought after a new election – and under a new constitution.