Thursday, July 22, 2010

Nepal: Leadership crisis in Nepal

By Sudeshna Sarkar in Kathmandu for ISN Security Watch
Republished courtesy ISN Security Watch

Two governments in two years and a failed election to choose a third clearly illustrates the lack of faith in Nepal’s major political parties, Sudeshna Sarkar writes for ISN Security Watch.

“Our country has everything,” ethnic lawmaker Hridayesh Tripathi told parliament Wednesday, the day Nepal held its third election in less than two years to choose a new prime minister - and failed. “Except leaders. We are accursed in the leaders we have. There are no leaders in this parliament.”

Tripathi’s outburst came after his Terai Madhes Democratic Party formed an alliance with three other ethnic parties to teach the country’s three major parties a lesson. The new bloc, with over 80 parliamentarians and the ability to make or mar a candidate, abstained from voting in Wednesday’s polls, saying none of the top three contesting parties had kept its commitment to ethnic and indigenous communities despite promises.

Half of Nepal’s 25 parliamentary parties boycotted the vote, saying they had lost faith in the parties that have been controlling Nepal’s destiny since 2006.

The rejection hits the Maoists the hardest, the biggest party in parliament after the 2008 election.

Nepal’s first constituent assembly election saw the former guerrillas ride to an unexpected victory on the crest of public disillusionment with the ruling parties and the desire for change. The once-banned party won 238 seats in the 601-member parliament, and its chief, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, won over two constituencies, while the ruling parties’ top leaders were routed.

The icing on the cake was the prime ministerial election in August 2008 in which Dahal, who still kept his nom de guerre Prachanda (Awesome), was backed by 20 of the 25 parliamentary parties and over 70 percent of lawmakers’ votes to become the first premier of Nepal.

But two years and two governments later, a stunned Prachanda could only watch in disbelief as Wednesday’s results showed he had been deserted by most of the parties and failed to muster even a simple majority. He won only 242 votes, far short of the 464 in 2008.

Not that his rivals fared any better. Prachanda’s nearest challenger, the Nepali Congress (NC), the second-largest party in the house, won only 124 votes, while the third, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), withdrew its candidate.

What marked the election was the unprincipled poll alliance between the Maoists and the communists. The Maoists had opposed the UML-led government and forced Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to resign last month, dubbing him a “puppet PM remote-controlled by India.” Yet they agreed to support the UML, which, in turn, unhesitatingly deserted the Nepali Congress, its old ally.

The opportunistic alliance, however, was short-lived. The Maoists withdrew support from the UML within hours, deciding to go it alone.

“Prachanda soiled his own image,” Yugnath Sharma, editor of the Commander daily, told ISN Security Watch. “He was found to be a dictator who would rather support his rival than allow a leadership change in his own party.”

Maoist failure

Opportunistic alliances aside, the Maoists have also provoked rapid public disillusionment since the fall of their nine-month government in 2009, due to a combination of factors.

They refused to allow the succeeding government to function, did not gracefully accept defeat when their proposals for the new constitution were outvoted by the ruling coalition, and most importantly, showed obduracy when it came to parting with arms.

“The Maoists are not a civilian party yet,” Nepali Congress prime ministerial candidate Ram Chandra Poudel told ISN Security Watch. “They have refused to dismantle their People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and paramilitary organizations and are not ready to return the public properties they confiscated during the civil war. As long as they remain armed, they shouldn’t be allowed to lead the government.”

The PLA issue has posed the most significant hurdles to the peace process. When the Maoist insurgency ended, the ruling parties agreed to induct the PLA in the national army. However, the army refused to allow an en masse induction of the guerrillas, especially after the revelation that the Maoists had deliberately inflated the PLA’s number in the hope of controlling the army through them.

Currently, there are nearly 20,000 PLA combatants awaiting either integration in the army or rehabilitation. The NC wants to hasten the process in three weeks’ time while the Maoists are seeking to prolong it.

Last week, while investigating an armed robbery in Kathmandu, police said they learned that the gang was masterminded by a PLA commander, Kali Bahadur Kham. While searching Kham’s apartment, police said they found a cache of arms and ammunition and a stolen car.

The absconding Kham is also wanted for murder. In 2008, after the Maoists won the election, he is said to have engineered the kidnapping of a businessman who was then beaten to death inside a PLA camp under Kham. But in spite of the public indignation it created, the Maoists promoted Kham to their decision-making central committee. Now, though police are seeking to arrest him, he is being sheltered by the Maoist leadership, who reject the charges against him as a “frame-up.”

Irking India

In addition, the Maoists are at loggerheads with India, Nepal’s dominant southern neighbor that wields enormous influence on the republic. Prachanda has also marred his party’s relations with New Delhi by his strident anti-India tirades.

“India and China have traditionally influenced Nepal’s politics,” Indrajit Rai, military expert and Maoist-nominated member of parliament, told ISN Security Watch. “During the Maoist insurgency, India brokered a peace pact between the Maoists and the ruling parties. But now India doesn’t want a Maoist government in Nepal.”

Rai says relations between the Indian government and the Maoists soured after allegations began to surface that Maoists supplied the Indian Maoists with weapons.

“Also, India wants a government in Nepal that will serve its interests,” Rai said. “But Maoist chairman Prachanda... spoke against Indian intervention in Nepal’s internal matters and growing encroachment on Nepal’s territory, which displeased India.”

India, for its part, accuses the Maoists of double standards.

According to India’s ambassador to Nepal, Rakesh Sood, New Delhi is concerned about the delay in drafting the constitution and rehabilitating PLA fighters.

“There are two pillars to the whole process of Maoists coming over ground,” the Indian envoytold the Republica daily. “One was their commitment that within six months of the elections, rehabilitation and integration of Maoist combatants would take place, and the second was their commitment to multiparty democracy. I think somehow there is a feeling that some concrete action needs to be taken to re-establish the trust that the Maoists are still committed to these.”

India was also angered by the Maoist opposition to an agreement between the Nepal government and New Delhi to print Nepali passports. Nepali passport holders don’t need a visa to stay in India, can work there without an employment permit and engage in commercial activities. After the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008, which killed 166 people, India became more concerned about security.

After the discovery that 30 to 40 Nepali passports are stolen daily, and that over the course of the past year along, nearly 20 terrorists caught in India entered the country through Nepal, New Delhi became worried about Nepali passports and sought to have them printed by an Indian company, which would have incorporated special security features. Though the concern was genuine, thanks to the ham-handed way the deal was struck, the Maoists opposed it and it was scrapped.
India would prefer to have a Nepali Congress-led government in Kathmandu, as traditionally, with which India’s ruling Congress party traditionally has been close. However, after Nepali Congress chief Girija Prasad Koirala’s death in March, the party lost much of its clout. Moreover, there are doubts about the party’s commitment to republicanism and secularism.

Koirala himself had tried to save monarchy through a “baby king” who would have been a ceremonial figurehead. Some of his party members are now actively engaged in a campaign to end secularism in Nepal, once the only Hindu kingdom in the world, and restore Hinduism as the state religion.

Last chance

Given the lack of confidence in the major parties, Nepal’s smaller parties are now proposing a new leader from their fold.

“The new PM’s focus will be the new constitution and not ruling,” Sarita Giri, leader of Nepal Sadbhavana Party (Anandi), one of the fringe parties, told ISN Security Watch. “It can be someone from the smaller parties who has the personality to carry everyone with him. It happened in Britain during World War II under the Liberal Democrats.”

However, the Maoists and the Nepali Congress have been given a second chance at leadership. On Friday, Nepal’s parliament will once again hold a poll to elect the 34th prime minister, and the two largest parties will be in direct contest. If within the next 24 hours either of them can woo the necessary support, the leadership crisis will have been averted, at least temporarily. If neither manages, parliament chairman Subhas Nembang will have to come up with other options.

Sudeshna Sarkar is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Nepal.