Factional in-fighting in the Maoist party is at an all-time high as hardliners talk publicly of revolt against Maoist Prime Minister Baburam Bhatterai. This is hardly the first time in Nepal that intra-party rivalries have threatened to bring down a government: The previous two UML governments fell largely due to factional disputes, and in 1997 Nepali Congress members helped oust Sher Bahadur Deuba, PM from their own party, in a no-confidence vote.
But the stakes are higher this time than just the prime minister’s chair. The Maoists, who fought an armed insurrection from 1996 to 2006, are deeply divided about the path forward. The bottom line dispute is whether the party should continue to participate in the “bourgeois” democratic system or press on with a “people’s war” with the aim of total control of the state.
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Maoist supremo Prachanda’s careful balancing of the opposing forces in his party since 2006 has been artful, but it has also been largely responsible for the lack of progress in implementing the Comprehensive Peace Accord signed that year. As time has dragged on, parties from the center and right have become increasingly intransigent in their demands that the Maoists implement their earlier agreements to integrate and rehabilitate their army, disband their unarmed militia and return land seized during the conflict.
Bhatterai has promised credibly to do all three things and has gone so far as to turn over control of the Maoist arms to a state commission charged with closing the Maoist army’s cantonments. Hardliners in his party call this a “surrender.”
Army integration has appeared to be near settlement several times, but disagreement over the terms has prevented an agreement. Proposals for the number of troops to be allowed to enlist in the Nepal Army have varied, and as that question appeared settled, the issue of whether they should be allowed automatic enlistment or be required to meet the army’s norms arose. The Maoist hardliners are now insisting that PLA officers should keep their rank when joining the Nepal Army.
The shifting goalposts cause politicians from the center and right to question how sincere the Maoists are. The army itself has remained remarkably neutral in public, but senior officers are clearly unwilling to have poorly-educated, highly-indoctrinated Maoist commanders in charge of regular army units.
The issue of the Young Communists League, the Maoist militia, has receded over the last year because the YCL has toned down its often heavy-handed attempts to intimidate Nepali media outlets and other parties. But the seized land could become a major stumbling block to completing the peace process. Hardliners have declared that they would rather split the party than follow Bhatterai’s instructions to displace the squatters to whom they have given the land and to return it to the owners.
A party split wouldn’t necessarily be disastrous: Other parties might even welcome it if it meant that neither faction could summon the 34 percent in the Assembly necessary to block a peace agreement and the much-delayed new constitution.
The danger though of the Maoist hardliners breaking with (relatively) centrist Maoists is that they would almost certainly declare open rebellion against their own government and, at a minimum, call their cadres into the streets to try to renew the insurrection. The hardliners have prevented their party’s central committee from meeting to try to resolve the issue, and they may be waiting only for this week’s Dashain holiday to end to flex their muscles. Hardliner CP Gajurel, Secretary of the party, has spoken openly of a third People’s Revolution that, he said, has already begun and would soon gain momentum.
Hardline labor union leaders also appear to be ready for mass action to defy a labor-management agreement supported by Bhatterai that would create an employer-paid social security system in return for a no-strikes pledge and greater freedom for employers to hire and fire workers without union approval.
Politics are briefly forgotten this week: Newspapers have closed for the holiday, and television and radio stations are playing entertainment programs in place of news broadcasts. But it is certain that the political turmoil will resume and worsen next week when the holiday spirit has passed.