Standoff in Nepal

The head of the UN mission to Nepal – the peacekeeping force supervising Maoist combatants and arms – is the latest senior official to question whether Nepal’s new constitution can be finished by the April 2010 deadline. She is certainly not the only one, and any reasonable observer looking at the paralysis in politics here has to agree.

At present the Maoists, the largest party in the Constituent Assembly that is an interim parliament as well as constitution-drafting body, are blocking all activity in the assembly. The ostensible reason is their demand to discuss “civilian supremacy.”

The Maoists ran Nepal’s interim government after the April 2007 elections that they won. Earlier this year the Maoist prime minister resigned after his attempt to fire the army chief was blocked by Nepal’s president, who is nominal head of the armed forces. Legal action over that controversy continues.

Even though the matter is sub judice at the supreme court, the Maoists have taken it up as their main political goal. Reversing the decision would have no practical effect, as the commanding general is on leave and will be replaced in two weeks at the end of his term. The coalition of 22 non-Maoist parties which now governs in place of the Maoists consider the army chief’s firing to have been an attempt by the Maoists to take control over a vital national institution. They say that the president is a civilian and has constitutional control of the army; according to them “civilian supremacy” is just code for Maoist supremacy.

But the issue is enough to provide a pretext for the Maoists to use the politics of destructive opposition. Their real goal is a return to power, and their rhetoric for weeks has been about a “national government” which they would lead.

Behind the scenes they have been appealing to Nepali Congress party head Girija Koirala and to the opposition faction of the prime minister’s UML party to overthrow the current government. Both the UML opposition faction and the NC are believed to covet the prime ministership for themselves, but Maoist support for either would evaporate as soon as a no-confidence vote was passed.

The current squabble over who will chair the constituent assembly’s apex committee for the constitution is a proxy for the melee over control of the government. Both the NC and the Maoists demand the seat. The UML, expedient wafflers as always, have not fielded a candidate. The conservative UML faction apparently supports the NC, even though their internal divisions have prevented them from saying so directly. The UML head is reportedly leaning towards supporting the Maoists’ candidate, Dr. Baburam Bhatterai, in return for a Maoist pledge to stop disrupting the CA.

The confusion over the issue is so great that the decision has been delayed again, and no vote will be taken on the matter until at least August 24th.

That will suit the Maoists just fine. They have been clinging to the flimsy issue of civilian supremacy to prevent progress on a new constitution. Even though they emerged from the elections as the largest party, subsequent events have demonstrated that they do not have the strength to create a “people’s republic” nor control the form of the new constitution. They have decided that their best course of action is to stall until they can again lead the government.

Nor are Maoist bosses clearly in control of their own factions. Their recent party meet decided to decentralize party governance, leaving Pushpa Dahal, AKA Prachanda, with less power. Prachanda’s recent overseas trip to England and Russia may have weakened him further, as Maoist international leaders in England refused to meet with him.

But his second stop in Russia appears to have been more successful, at least in financial terms. Money from Maoist supporters there will add to the UCPM coffers and perhaps to the party’s influence at home.

That may help the Maoists bring about the downfall of the current government and return to power, though probably with Dr. Bhatterai as the prime minister. Until then the prospects for an agreement on the many contentious points of a new constitution and the two-thirds plurality required to implement it appear very dim.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.