Political Transition in Nepal: Challenges Ahead

May 9, 2012

Nepal. Photo by keso s/Flickr

The rising tide of Maoists, during the last decade, has turned the Nepalese psyche towards establishing a modern welfare state. The same conditions led to a momentous political rebellion against the royal monarchy, particularly between the years of 1996 and 2006. Consequently, the 238 years-old institution came to an end in 2008 when the Constituent Assembly of Nepal declared a Federal and Democratic Republic. Further, 2006 witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists for establishing democracy in Nepal.

That agreement set in motion a plan to hold popular elections in April 2008. It was during those elections that the Communist Party of Nepal became the majority party, and Pushpa Kamal Dahal (alias ‘Prachanda’) became the Prime Minister of Nepal.

Until April of 2008, there had been a decades-long co-existence of multiple religious communities, which shielded Nepal from communalism under the Hindu kingdom.

However, since their society has become politicized, the Maoists and non-Hindu populace have raised their voices in support of a modern and secular Nepal. In fact, these demands of secularism were used as political weapons with which to attack the monarchy.

While a parliamentary resolution has now established Nepal as a secular state, there is the misconception that secularism means being a completely non-Hindu, beef-eating culture. If a nation declares itself to be a nation of a specific religion (in this case, Hindu), will that impede the country’s socio-economic development?

In fact, the political transition throws up a variety of issues: political, social and economic that together led to the evolution of a new political culture- a vital element in the process of political transformation. Unfortunately, Nepal had not been able to evolve a coherent political culture despite three democratic experiments of the 1950s, 1990s and the recent being in 2006, all due to selfish rulers abusing public trust.

Role of External Powers

Also, the role of external powers has always been important during the transition phase in Nepal. The United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) was responsible for overseeing the peace process there but its prolonged presence had raised suspicions particularly in China, Pakistan and India, because the mission overstayed despite closure of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal. Indeed, the UNMIN had successfully crushed the PLA’s violence and had ensured smooth elections to the Constituent Assembly.

There are several glaring cases of human rights violations in which thousands of people were brutally killed, and many others either disappeared or were tortured during civil war but there has not been a single prosecution for abuses in civilian courts even though all political parties agreed to set up the Independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) during the formation of the peace agreement in 2006. But Maoist leaders were not honest towards the aggrieved families.

Nepal has a high incidence of missing persons (around 1000 people are still missing) during the violent decade. Although existing law provides for the “right to information”, the government declines to answer in this context. The UN and its Human Rights groups have regularly been pressing the Nepali government to improve human rights and work sincerely on the post-conflict justice system. The UN and other international organizations should motivate the independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission to honestly investigate all facts relating to violations of human rights and other such abuse cases.

Those responsible for human rights violations must be brought to justice irrespective of their position.

Challenges Ahead

It is likely that the transition will mark a key political break with the past and seriously impact the socio-economic and cultural evolution of the society. However, even the short-term scope and implications of this transition, remain uncertain.

Nonetheless, it is likely that the centuries- old monarchy, having undergone several politico-military incarnations, will cease to exist. Even if the monarchy renews itself, it will be rendered politically and militarily powerless and the sovereign power will finally reside in the people. May be, that the state and society in Nepal will become more open, democratic, federal, inclusive and plural.

Further, the state policy may become much less centralized and, instead, be based on substantive devolution of political and financial powers to the local governments, civil society groups and other private initiatives. It is also likely that specific features of pre-capitalist and the feudal forms of landownership, like, absentee ownership and attached labour like the bonded labour system of India- the haliya labour system- may be rendered illegal.

The biggest challenge, perhaps, is that of curbing fundamentalism and communalism, and containing and/or eliminating the consequent social and sectarian violence.

A sense of mutual mistrust overshadowed the relations between the mainstream political parties and the powerful Maoists, having global networks. But there remained a common enemy- the monarchy. After the success of the second People’s movement, the Koirala government persuaded the Maoists to the negotiating-table and offered them much more. Also an elitist and non-inclusive approach to constitution drafting led to severe protests and a movement, which caused further instability. In fact, the Nepalese constitution has undergone several amendments leading to a weaker government. The reinstated parliament had asserted sovereign powers in relation to the command of the armed forces. The alliance of seven parliamentary parties (SPA) and the insurgent Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) CPN (M), the two principal protagonists of the April political movement came to a seven-point agreement under which they, together, agreed to chalk out the future course of action. The “terrorist” label pasted on the CPN (M) for several years has been withdrawn. The ascendant and increasingly autocratic monarchy continues to be “suspended” as a ceremonial, obsolete and a non-existent institution. The strong link between the king and the army is broken.

People’s representatives have asserted the exclusive right to exercise the sovereign power of the state. The SPA and the CPN (M) have devised a code of conduct for the transitional period and agreed to frame an interim constitution and an interim government, which would include the Maoists, and prepare a new constitution through the constituent assembly. The government and the CPN (M) have agreed to a comprehensive peace treaty. The United Nations, in particular, has also been monitoring the elections to the constituent assembly. Fortunately, all stakeholders in Nepal particularly neighboring countries, and international organizations which have their political, social, economic and strategic interests like India, China, the US, the UK, and the EU, are supporting the overall transitional initiatives currently underway in Nepal.

Interim Constitution

Most importantly, the interim constitution has been finalized following intense negotiations among the political forces, which, though silent over the monarchy, recognizes the prime minister as the head of state. It seeks to dismantle several key features of the pre-capitalist form and promote a capitalist economy. It also seeks to promote inclusion of a host of marginalized groups like the poor masses, agricultural tenants etc. and encourages substantive devolution of political power to different regions. However, the political agenda being formulated by various political parties, party-aligned “social” organizations and civil society actors are very disparate. These disparate interests have on several occasions threatened to derail the alliance among the seven parliamentary parties and also between the SPA and the CPN (M). In particular, the political legitimacy of the reinstated parliament, has been strongly challenged by the CPN (M), not the least because the insurgent CPN (M) is not represented in parliament. The CPN (M) as well as various party organizations and party cadres within each constituent of the SPA have resisted the ceremonial-monarch position accorded to the king by the government. The CPN (M) has also protested against the appointment of senior functionaries of the country. Many in the SPA alliance, on the other hand, remain wary of the PLA and, to a somewhat lesser degree, of the NA- the de facto allegiance which continues to remain in question. The emergence of multiple political bodies, adds to further uncertainty.

Rising Uncertainties

A high level of uncertainty exists as a rather wide gate has been opened to transitions. To begin with, there are several uncertainties over the identification of the constitutive political-economic directions and themes of the popular movement and political transition and, as a corollary, over the precise nature of political, socio-economic and cultural transitions that are likely to be effected directly within the next couple of years. More precisely, there is a considerable uncertainty over whether the future state will be broadly neo-liberal, liberal-inclusive-democratic or socio-democratic in nature or whether the CPN (M), in particular, will push it to a “decidedly red direction”.

Further, how these broad political and socio-economic programs will be enacted across “sectors”, i.e., the agrarian regime and other sectors of production like small industries, organization of labour, socio-cultural sectors, revenue and investment fields etc., remain uncertain.

Also uncertain is the question of the form of federation. Will Nepal be a union of near-sovereign units or will it consist of considerably less than federal but highly autonomous local governments?

Again, it is not impossible either for the new state to become more centralized than the previous state-due to the unprecedentedly large and “well-equipped” security apparatus it will inherit and the high intensity of claims-based politics that the fluid and uncertain present has unleashed among occupational, regional, ethnic, gender and other interest groups; the rising level of income inequality and the prospect of huge international or multinational investments?

Similarly, the neo-liberal push unleashed by international financial institutions and many donor countries, which is essentially rooted in western capitalist imperialism, may lead to a clash between liberal, democratic and a welfare-oriented popular mandate, on the one hand, and the inability of the state to promote such structures, values and such outcomes, on the other. Consequently, salient contradictions will exist within and among political parties and principal economic actors over whether or not, the future course of the transition can and will remain faithful to the themes of the popular movement and political transition.

Importantly, there is uncertainty over the transitions that the CPN (M) itself is undergoing because it seeks to resolve its emerging contradictions among party cadres. In fact, the CPN (M) necessarily views the current transition as a specific historical construction that will have to be undone during the march toward a future ND state or a socialist state. The realization of such a future, of course, will depend on the conduct of the CPN (M) itself and other political parties and key national international actors.

Indeed, the movement was successful and the contours of the political transition are currently being drawn because that was founded on a broad platform on which highly disparate political forces, could coalesce and collaborate in a relatively sustained manner. The common political platform was built around the principles of multi-party democracy and popular sovereignty, which, in the first instance, meant an end to the politically and militarily powerful autocratic monarchy.

The platform was not built around arms but rather around the principles of a peaceful political transition so that popular will and consensus, would direct the future course of state affairs, and around the principles equity, freedom and social justice, peace and security. The state now has to immediately implement these steps.

Conclusion

Thus the coming into existence of a so-called multi–party democratic political system in Nepal brought high hopes among people at large. However, nothing concrete has resulted so far to bring about the desired change.

Against this backdrop, an inclusive development-strategy is central to Nepal’s overall reform efforts during the transition towards a modern-liberal, secular, and democratic socio-political order which would address the eradication of poverty and promote the right to development of needy Nepali citizens.

Further, Nepal has adopted an issue-based approach to such development, which highlights mutually reinforcing interrelationships between human rights, inclusive democracy and socio-economic development. Further, bringing out the nationally-driven peace process to a successful conclusion and writing a democratic Constitution through the Constituent Assembly within a fixed schedule are the biggest challenges. However, the signing of the seven-point agreement by the Nepalese political parties on 1st November, 2011 was a significant achievement.

With all these problems, inherent in its political transition, Nepal needs more economic and technological support from the international community to effectively succeed and create a new and stable nation.

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