The Final Countdown in Nepal
Five years after a peace accord marked the end of a decade long civil war, Nepal’s political transformation has entered its final phase.
On May 27, 2012, the term of the Constituent Assembly — extended four times beyond its original two-year term — will expire. And this time, politicians will not find it easy to give the CA another lease of life due to a judicial stricture. The Supreme Court (SC) has declared that the current extension is final, and if the constitution is not promulgated, there should be another election or referendum. There is also rising popular pressure to wrap up the prolonged transition, which has been accompanied by abysmal service delivery.
That gives the political forces less than three months to wrap up the peace process and write a constitution. Together, this will shape the nature of Nepal’s political institutions and security apparatus.
While the peace process was conceptualised to have several components — transitional justice, property return and land reform, democratisation of the Nepal Army (NA) — it has come to largely refer to the integration and rehabilitation of 19,602 former Maoist combatants of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in regular discourse.
After a long stalemate, parties agreed in early November 2011 to integrate a maximum of 6,500 combatants in a specially created directorate under the NA. Subsequently, the former fighters were categorised into three groups after a detailed interview process. Around 9,000 of them opted for integration, and the rest chose to voluntarily retire with cash incentives. Only a handful picked rehabilitation packages. In early February, those who opted for retirement left the cantonments.
It has not been a smooth ride due to fissures within the Maoists. Vice chairman Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran’ accused Mr Prachanda and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai of “selling out.” Many combatants felt the process was “humiliating,” claiming it was akin to recruitment rather than integration. PLA commanders were reported to have taken away a part of the cash from fighters choosing retirement, causing resentment. Former PLA personnel who joined the party’s Young Communist League (YCL) have demanded their own financial share. But despite hiccups, none of the stakeholders has walked away from the process itself or reverted to violence.
Two weeks ago, the NA submitted a detailed proposal on operationalising the integration process and the structure of the new directorate. It has been flexible on standard norms of entry (education, age, marital status), and the nature of training courses for those to be integrated. For an institution that was viscerally opposed to integration, the NA leadership’s recent constructive attitude is positive.
But differences persist on rank determination. The Maoists have demanded at least a Brigadier General position for one of their commanders. The opposition parties and the NA have said they cannot give anything higher than the rank of a Major as this would hamper the “professionalism” of the army, and cause resentment among serving officers.
A possible compromise being suggested is an honorary position of a Colonel to a PLA commander, with a limited term. This could also aid the process of integration in its initial phase when Maoist combatants enter the new directorate.
If there is a deal, the actual process of integration can start almost immediately, eventually leading to a closure of cantonments and the handover of weapons. Both Mr. Prachanda and Mr. Bhattarai have claimed that this will happen within the next month.
The delay in the peace process has generated mistrust between parties, the impact of which has been felt in discussions about the form of government to be adopted in the constitution.
The stated demand of the Maoists is a directly elected presidential system; the Nepali Congress has asked for a traditional parliamentary system; and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) has suggested a system with a directly elected Prime Minister and a constitutional President. The NC’s underlying fear is Mr. Prachanda will win in a direct presidential election, and then become authoritarian. The Maoists, for their part, have said they cannot accept a parliamentary system against which they waged a war. After going through 20 governments in as many years, the Maoist logic in favour of a stable presidential system is appealing to many.
A compromise model that emerged from an all-party taskforce of a CA sub-committee to resolve disputes was a so-called mixed “French system.” The President would be elected by the people and would take charge of foreign and defence policy; the Prime Minister would be elected by the legislature and be responsible for day-to-day administration. It satisfies the Maoist demand for a directly elected executive, while imposing reasonable checks. But this has drawn criticism on the ground that having dual centres of power will lead to conflict and policy paralysis. Another possible compromise is that of a directly elected Prime Minister, as suggested by the UML and some NC leaders, checked by the presidency and Parliament.
For now, the parties have retreated to their formal stated positions. But if the peace process moves forward, they may become more flexible on governance structure. A member of the task-force told The Hindu, “We know a mixed system is a bad compromise. But it is at least a compromise. This is what the present balance of power dictates.”
If the form of government has divided the political parties, the debate on federalism has exposed the ethnic faultlines within Nepali society. Many from dominant communities like Bahuns and Chhetris (hill Hindu upper castes) are sceptical of federalism — and oppose any kind of identity-based state restructuring. For their part, marginalised communities like Janjatis (indigenous ethnic groups) and Madhesis see demarcation of federal states on the basis of cultural identities as essential for their empowerment.
This was reflected in the recently submitted report of the nine-member State Restructuring Commission.
The majority — all from historically under-represented groups across party lines — proposed 11 provinces. This would include two provinces in the Tarai on the India border and a non-territorial province for Dalits; many states would be named after the demographically dominant ethnic community residing there; there would be right to self-determination; and preferential political rights would be granted in special areas at the sub-regional level.
But three other members submitted a separate proposal of six provinces. They argued that the majority proposal had ignored economic viability. The minority report connected hills and plains, giving more provinces access to the India border; and it stood against preferential rights and right to self-determination.
Any compromise will require entrenched elites to recognise that identity-based movements have been the driving force behind the demand for federalism. For them to be nostalgic about a unitary state, or hope that resource distribution can be the sole basis for configuring states, is to misread the impulse for recognition and self-rule among groups which have never had a stake in the power structure. Some leaders of the bigger parties have been toying with the idea of promulgating the constitution, but “postponing” the issue of federalism for now. This will be seen as a conspiracy to derail the federal project and invite a backlash from the Madhesis and the Janjatis.
At the same time, Madhesis and ethnic groups will have to step back from their maximalist demands. Tarai parties should know that they cannot have the entire southern plains as a single province, and respect the diversity within the region. Ethnic groups cannot expect to get special political rights for their communities in provinces where they are the single largest bloc — at the cost of treating all other minorities as second class citizens. This would violate all tenets of individual rights, and indirectly strengthen the anti-federal lobby.
By any stretch, these are enormously challenging tasks. Instead of getting embroiled in short term power-sharing games, Nepal’s political leaders would be well advised to focus on the big issues with long-term consequences, and fulfil the mandate of the 2006 People’s Movement. The clock is ticking.
(First published in The Hindu.)