The Coming Constitutional Crash in Nepal

Nepal’s Maoist party has played the role of destructive opposition for a year and is now planning to raise the stakes.

When Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal resigned on May 4 of last year over his government’s inability to sack the army chief, many applauded it as an act of principle in conformance to democratic norms. But almost immediately his party began to try to bring down the subsequent 22-party coalition government by disruption and non-cooperation.

For months the Maoists blocked the Constituent Assembly from meeting, and later stalled legislation and constitutional committees’ progress. Now in the run-up to the May 28 deadline for the assembly to write a new constitution, Maoists are accelerating their opposition. All forms of cooperation are off the table until there is “a national unity government based on consensus,” ie. a government that the Maoists lead, implementing Maoist policies.

May 28th is important because the assembly’s term and the government’s legitimacy expires then. Without a constitution, the assembly has to act by the 28th to avoid chaos. The best way would be to get a plurality in the assembly to extend the term and the date for completing the constitution. The only other option mooted so far would be to declare elections to a new assembly.

The Maoists appear confident that they can prevent either step for a month and force the government out.

To further the effort, they have called a massive rally in Kathmandu for May Day. All over the country thousands of Maoist cadres are being trained for the event. Maoist leaders say the training is for organization and security at the rally, but reporters have seen arms at the sites and training with khukris, the curved knife carried by Gurkha soldiers.

May Day would be just the beginning of the Maoist May plan. They say that they will call a nationwide, indefinite strike starting May 2 if their demands aren’t met. And a Maoist-affiliated union has already closed 8,000 private schools over the pretext of fee increases.

The government fears the training is for a new rebellion, the army and security forces have been put on alert. Prominent Maoists have warned in turn that any crackdown on their “peaceful demonstrations” would lead to “mass action.”

The Maoists may believe that the time is right to capture the state, using the “failure” of the assembly to write a constitution as cover. Maoist vice-chairman and hardliner Mohan Vaidya says that the Maoists “will topple the government at any cost.” “We will throw it out from the streets,” he told a press conference on Sunday.

The purported revolt from the streets could just be a bluff. But the two sides look like they are headed for a car wreck. A coup by strength by the military and right becomes possible if the assembly isn’t saved by May 28th. A declaration of an Emergency by the current government would only drive the Maoists to greater extremes. And a Maoist government installed by threats or force would only worsen the political deadlock.

Any of those outcomes would be a major accident. To avoid the crash, both the Maoists and the major parties will have to be willing to compromise, be courageous and demonstrate concern for the nation instead of their own interests: That is, they will have to act like statesmen if they know how.

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