Global Politics

Nepal Stagnates Amid Government Deadlock

Nepal is facing a Saturday deadline to come up with a new constitution, or risk a crisis.

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The process of writing a new constitution started in 2008, with the election of a Constituent Assembly — the latest step in a peace process that ended the Maoist insurgency's decade-long civil war that killed more than 16,000 people.

Since then, the Maoists have come in from the jungle, participated in and won the most votes in elections, served for nine months as the leading party in the government and argued amongst themselves about the best way forward.

Nepal's Maoists have now tried both — and they are internally conflicted about what they like better.

"Some of the traditional thinkers in our movement think this peace process is not benefitting to the people. It is not benefitting to the Party," said Khim Lal Devkota, a smartly dressed lawyer on the Maoist Politburo. "So they say we have to retreat back to a People's War and people's revolt. But my personal opinion is peace and constitution is the mandate of the people. This is the realistic line of our party within this time, I hope."

Such internal divisions within the Maoists are holding up progress. One faction, led by former Maoist forestry minister Matrika Prasad Yadav, has even broken away and formed its own party. And Prachanda, the former Maoist guerilla leader, who briefly served as prime minister in 2008-09, is said to sway between the hard-line faction that wants to go back to fighting, and the pragmatists, who want to work within the system.

The pragmatists know that Nepalis are weary of war. They know the long lines at gas stations, the 14-hour brown-outs, the high unemployment and anemic economic growth — despite Nepal being sandwiched between China and India, two of the world's fastest growing economies — is causing patience to fray and tempers to flare.

As the countdown to the deadline for a new constitution has progressed, Nepalis have taken to the streets, urging their politicians to think beyond their own interests and get beyond their deadlock. The government, a coalition of the Union of Marxist-Leninists and the Maoists, is seeking another year's extension, on top of the one-year extension when the deadline wasn't met last year. Some fed-up Nepalis are asking why their tax dollars should keep paying for 600 people on the Constiuent Assembly to sit around and not write a constitution.

"All these politics people are bad people," said a young taxi driver named Ram, as we idled on a crowded, dusty street in his beaten-up hatchback. "They all say when they're running for office that they're going to do good things. But once they're elected, they do nothing. Even the Maoists. They're only thinking of themselves, and not helping the people."

Ram said he was thinking about how he is going to get enough gasoline each day to drive his taxi, and earn enough money to take care of his wife and four-year-old daughter. Gas has been in short supply, thanks to the Nepal Oil Corporation not paying its bills, so most drivers have had to wait hours at the pumps, and even then, can only get a couple of gallons of gas at a time. Ram seethes as he describes how the rich and politically connected can cut to the front of the line, and take as much gas as they like. Nepal's politicians ignore such frustrations at their peril.

"The spark can catch fire and become a forest fire, because everything is so tinder dry, in terms of joblessness, economic frustration, inflation — all the gamut of reasons which is why North Africa is flaring up. The same reasons exist here, as well," said Kunda Dixit, publisher of the Nepali Times newspaper. "Unless you give jobs to people, unless there is hope for the future, demagogues can use those objective conditions to foment violence in the future."

Most Nepalese are illiterate, and live beneath the poverty line. Millions work overseas, because there are no jobs at home. As many as one-third of Nepal's 47 million people are dependent on the remittances those workers send home — remittances that account for 23 percent of Nepal's total GDP.

War and instability haven't helped. They put on hold earlier plans to harness some of Nepal's 43,000 megawatts of potential hydropower — creating electricity that could end the brownouts, draw in new foreign investment and businesses, and still have plenty left over to sell for profit to energy-hungry India and China.

"Because of that instability and the power struggle at the top, development is paralyzed, economic activity is not taking place," Dixit said. "It is encouraging lawlessness and impunity, which means investors are not investing. That means jobs aren't being created. And that then becomes a whole vicious cycle."

Dixit said some former Maoists themselves, those in the faction that wants to go back to fighting, are running road blocks, doing banditry and engaging in black market activities. Most of the 19,000 Maoist soldiers are in the barracks, being paid a small salary to sit idle. The Maoist party takes a generous cut of that salary.

That may be one reason why the Maoists have been slow to move toward letting their army be disbanded — or, as they prefer to say, integrated and rehabilitated. But even here, there are disputes among parties.

"They want to integrate (with Nepal's national army) on their own terms," said Ram Sharan Mahat, leader of the Congress Party. "They want to keep their units together, so they can maintain control over them." He said they also want their cadre to go in at the same rank they held as guerillas, whether they meet the Nepali army's standards for that rank or not.

However the Maoist army integrates, Mahat said it has to happen soon, or there'll be no new constitution. He hints that the Congress Party wouldn't consider that the end of the world — after all, the idea of pushing for a new constitution, one that enshrined more autonomy for ethnic groups and more rights for the poor — was part of the Maoist platform, not the Congress Party's. He said even when a new constitution is written, his party won't help ratify it, until the Maoists stop hanging on to their separate army.

"The problem is, the Maoists haven't given up their goal of People's Republic." Mahat said. "As a long-term goal, that's fine. If you go to people and get a popular mandate, that's one thing. But you must give up violence. You must give up arms. And you cannot capture power with the help of force."

Maoist Politburo member Devkota said his party will give up its separate army in good time, but not before a constitution is written that the Maoists feel was worth their struggle.

"If anyone is trying to conspire against peace and constitution, we have to launch some other kind of protest movement," he said. But it will be helpful to peace and constitution."

It is hard to argue that one party in a negotiation maintaining a separate army just in case, is a constructive strategy toward peace. Political analyst Prashant Jha, also of the Nepali Times, said the real problem is that the Maoists feel on the defense. He said once the Maoists lost their coalition majority in 2009, despite having won the most votes in the election, most of the other parties worked to shut them out of government.

"There was an effort to isolate and pressure them to give up their army. But I think that boomeranged," Jha said. "You can't push someone to the wall and then say, 'ok, give me your source of strength.' I think the way to do it is to keep engaging them in the process, keep giving them a share of the power structure, and then forcing them to and extracting concessions from them."

Jha said the Maoists' own record in power was disappointing to many people who voted for them — they expected faster progress. But some voted for the Maoists, not because they believe in socialism, but because they wanted to get the Maoists out of the jungle and into the system. They are now, and Jha believes that is where they'll now stay.

"I do not see the possibility of the Maoists coming and capturing the state and imposing their own style of totalitarian Marxist system," he said. "I think the Maoists realize they have to coexist with other forces. This will be a democracy of some sort. A flawed democracy, a dysfunctional political system, perhaps, a noisy and messy one, but the Maoists will have to live within that system."

Some Maoists even talk about European-style social democratic aspirations.

"A capitalistic kind of revolution is the aspiration of my party, too," said Maoist Politburo member Devkota. "Without a capitalistic revolution, we cannot jump into socialism. Germany, after unification, introduced a social market economy. That could also be one of the models for the Nepalese context."

The Maoists' detractors are skeptical, and with the clock ticking down on coming up with a constitution, each side accuses the other of operating in bad faith.

But others see the Maoists as the closest thing they have to a champion in a system stacked against them. At dusk in Kathmandu's Square, with rose light playing on exquisite former royal dwellings, rickshaw driver Dumar Rana said the Maoists still have his support.

"They did an excellent job when they ran the government," he said. "They had a program of helping rickshaw drivers get loans to buy their rickshaws. They really wanted to work hard for laborers. Some political parties didn't really want to develop the nation, but the Maoists did."

What's more, he said, the Maoists have given people like him their dignity.

"I'm speaking here because of the Maoist party," he said. "Under the monarchy, we laborers didn't have the right to speak. It's the Maoists who gave us the chance to speak and get involved in politics."

What Dumar Rana would like politicians, including the Maoists, to hear now, is to get on with it, get a constitution written, and start helping the people they were elected to help.