Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Going Somewhere

The Maoists are finally in power in a semi-republican Nepal. And this definitely is not an April Fool’s prank. Six of their cadres are now part of the interim government announced Sunday, April 1.

Not everyone got everything in this historic power-sharing. Yet, in a face-saving compromise, each member of the alliance of Seven Parties (SPA) and the Maoists has settled on something.

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) got five ministries, which include communication; social welfare; local development; physical planning; and conservation. The Nepali Congress (NC) will lead the government with Mr. Girija Prasad Koirala as the Prime Minister, controlling major portfolios that include defense, home, finance, and peace & rehabilitation. Other smaller factions in the alliance got external affairs, education, tourism, water resources, health, industry and justice, etc.

In normal circumstances, this would be just another government. Kathmandu has long been used to unlikely political coalitions, frequent cabinet reshuffles, and their untimely demises. The latest portfolios are temporary, too, hence an “interim” government. But symbolically, the new balance of power has far reaching implications for public opinion, party-politics, or history books. On the practical side, the unity government’s main task is to hold Constitution Assembly (CA) elections on June 23, 2007.

Going Somewhere
Nepalis should breath a shy of relief that after ten years of bloody war and more than 13,000 lives lost, the former rebels seem to have embraced a politics of dialogue, although they have not fully renounced violence despite an agreement to that effect. The parties have also compromised with the emerging political reality. The progress in the peace process, however, seems to be paired with some setbacks, in the direction of violent politics and a constant reference to a past characterized by political enmity and hatred among political parties and a suspended monarchy. Hence, gauzing true progress can be tricky.

The country is moving forward and yet it appears to be stagnant in some ways. Things seem to happen ad hoc, as in the last-minute glitch the other day over the formation of the new government. The announcement was postponed yet again when Amik Sherchan, the deputy PM and head of People's Front, a small faction within the now ruling alliance, expressed anger saying his party was not consulted during distribution of ministries. Several other deadlines have been missed due to such gaps in consultation.

The November 8 Baluwatar meeting between the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists had decided, among others, to confine armed forces of both sides within barracks under the UN supervision, include Maoists in the interim government by December 1, 2006, hold the election to Constituent Assembly by mid-June 2007, and to determine the fate of monarchy by the first meeting of the CA through a simple majority vote. That also formed the roadmap rehashed later into Brihat Shanti Samjhauta (Comprehensive Peace Agreement), singed by PM Koirala and the Maoist leader Prachanda on November 21, 2006.

We must not forget that a roadmap is just a roadmap, with a lot of legends and signposts. It is people and traffic that add any significance to a map or derive meaning out of those signs. And five months later, we can agree that the ride has not always been smooth and that the signs have not always been easy to decipher, leading us sometimes to contradictory or ambiguous interpretations and cross-interpretations: Where are we going? How far have we come along the road to a new Nepal? Is this trend toward republicanism or federalism (or whatever we think it is) truly irreversible? Or are we even going somewhere, anywhere?

There are any number of examples that help magnify the bumpy ride, a ride rich in action but potentially hazardous in health. Relations among the former adversaries-turned peacemakers have soured on and off, mainly over their divergent efforts to define “republicanism” vs the role of monarchy, dispute over the thoroughness of the confinement of arms and combatants, four months of squabbling over which party will hold the most significant ministerial portfolios in interim government.

At the same time, the violent Madhesi uprising in the Terai emerged as a new variable, calling for a revision of the roadmap itself and fueling political controversy regarding the legitimacy of that uprising, and the motives or sponsorship behind that agitation. To address the demands of democratic inclusiveness of Madhesis, the interim-constitution was amended on Friday, March 9.

The latest hiccup concerned opposing views on when to conduct CA elections (now set for June 23, 2007). Parties on the center or to the right of the center (as well as the UN’s monitoring team, and the US envoy) tend to argue that free and fair elections are not possible 3 months from now because the Maoists have not been fully restrained, and that they have not yet returned properties they seized from people during the insurgency. Many displaced victims of the war have not yet returned home. Parties on the left of the center warn that the Terai uprising in itself is a good reason to hold the elections as originally planned, otherwise reactionary forces will find ample time to conspire and plot against the emerging republican rule.

Without doubt, both sides are appealing to their bases and constituencies. Nonetheless, their love-hate relations have provided, once in a while, some semblance of a forward-movement. To grasp this rare ray of light amid what still appears to be a dark passage in Nepal’s history one must only look back to the time prior to April 2006. Many years of peace efforts turned hopelessly ineffective then.

So, the announcement on Sunday that SPA and the Maoists finally reached a deal on the formation of an interim government is a major milestone in the peace process. Months of closed-door efforts have apparently resulted in a general consensus at Singha Durbar over the nature and composition of the next transitional government that will oversee the CA elections.

The way ahead
The power-sharing can work only through honest and united efforts. We can certainly question the inclusiveness of the interim government of the alliance (many other smaller parties are excluded). But transitional politics in post-conflict situations is not always fully inclusive. It is the general masses as well as the civil society, including the media that must constantly work to hold the government accountable. Patience and persistence should be our democratic virtue during these testing times. Any glitch in the ongoing negotiation must be resolved via negotiation itself. If we could fight a bloody war for over a decade to arrive at the table of dialogue, then we must be willing to talk for as long as required.

The bigger challenges for the parties and the country are twofold—legitimizing the emerging political equation, and delivering the fruits of democracy to the masses. Both will take time. Just forming a government does not fully sanitize the Maoists or the parties of their past forms and failures. We have had more than a dozen governments in the past fifteen years.

For a true change, the political actors must permanently renounce violence and corruption. A smooth transition depends on creating a conducive environment for free and fair elections to the CA elections, maintaining law and order, adhering to the rule of law as well as political agreements (there have been several breaches of such agreements), and effective monitoring of arms and the elections.

One of the utter failures of those in power has been their incapacity to deal with or disinterest in addressing the issue of impunity. All those who are found guilty of violating citizen’s rights and the rule of law must be held accountable. Sadly, that is not happening. So much so that the former Supreme Court justice and chairman of the interim constitution drafting committee, Laxman Prasad Aryal, revealed recently that a clause on ending impunity that was included in the interim constitution draft has mysteriously disappeared in the final version of the document.

In the long term, there is also the need to adequately address calls of democratic inclusiveness as well as provide economic and social goods and services to the masses, whose vision of democracy is guided mainly by their daily struggle for a loaf of bread.

Published in the Nepal Monitor, April 2, 2007.