Saturday, August 18, 2007

Violence endangers elections in Nepal

In Nepal, elections for the constituent assembly scheduled for Nov. 22 appear increasingly uncertain as violence in nine of the 20 southern districts known as Terai (also called Madhesh) and sporadic violence committed by outlaws in other parts of the country, including Katmandu, continues unabated.

Adding to the uncertainty is the latest move by former Maoist rebels, now partners in the eight-party coalition government, setting two preconditions — declaration of a republic and adoption of a fully proportional electoral system — to "create an environment" for the election of 480 members of the constituent assembly.

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) announced its preconditions after a week of deliberations at the party plenum, attended by over 2,100 members in Katmandu during Aug. 1-7.

Maoist leader Prachanda declared last Sunday that his party's rationale for continuing in the government is diminished and that the party will soon decide whether to withdraw from the government altogether, but added that his party will not shy away from the elections and that "preconditions" ought to be understood as the party "position."

Constitutionally, declaring Nepal a republic requires a two-thirds majority in parliament. The support of the Nepali Congress (NC) party is vital as the communists' combined strength in parliament is only 55 percent. Analysts, however, say that such support from the NC is not likely, as Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, 84, still wants to keep monarchy as a ceremonial institution and a royal shield for democratic parties against the onslaught of revolutionary communists.

Analysts say inclusion of a proportional system of elections may be possible with an amendment to the constitution but it will be impossible to hold elections by Nov. 22, as that would require more homework to implement the paraphernalia of a proportional election system.

Leaders of other non-Maoist parties in the ruling coalition criticized the Maoist preconditions as an attempt to postpone the elections.

Critics say declaring Nepal a republic prior to the constituent assembly elections would violate earlier agreements in which the Maoists agreed to decide the fate of the monarchy in the first meeting of the assembly with a simple majority.

Maoist party plenum, delegates pressured the party leadership to withdraw from the government and start a "people's revolt" to sweep the remnants of its disgraced monarchy, which Maoists say is behind the violence in the Terai region and aims to derail the constituent assembly elections.

Hopes of a peaceful Nepal quickly eroded after last November when Maoists and the seven-party alliance introduced an interim constitution to manage the country until the duly elected constituent assembly drafts a new constitution. The interim constitution, however, failed to incorporate the demands of the several ethnic and regional groups for proportional representation within the federal system of government.

Analysts say seven-party alliance leaders refused to agree to a proportional electoral system, treating the previous single-member constituencies as their political inheritance while Maoists reasoned that any delay in constituent assembly elections would only help the traditional forces of monarchy. Confident of their electoral victory, the Maoists thought they could address the issues of an electoral system as per their earlier stand and include them in the new constitution to be drafted by the constituent assembly itself.

The interim constitution that emerged as a compromise document between the political parties and the former Maoist rebels, however, was quickly opposed by the Madheshi, or the people of the Terai, as well as the ethnic groups known as Jana-Jatis, who live in the mountains.

Within a week of the creation of the interim constitution, the Madheshi demanded regional autonomy with proportional representation. Ever since, the Terai/Madhesh region has faced unrest, with armed groups engaging in killings, abductions, looting and extortion of the people of hill origin.

Among the 14 armed groups reported by the local press, the most prominent are the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (MJF, also known as Madheshi People's Rights Forum), led by Upendra Yadhav, and the two factions of the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), led by Jaya Krishna Goit (JTMM-G) and Nagendra Kumar Paswan, aka Jwala Singh (JTMM-J), respectively.

Mr. Koirala opened negotiations with Madheshi Janadhikar Forum, which seeks greater ethnic-regional autonomy, with a goal to restore normalcy in the Terai for peaceful elections, but so far the results are not encouraging.

Both factions of JTMM, which seek outright independence, refuse to talk to the government, saying they will only talk to divide resources between Nepal and independent Madhesh.

The leaders of these groups were once the vanguard of the Maoist insurgency in Terai, but later broke rank with the mother party on account of ideological and policy differences.

The Maoists call these groups "criminal outfits" backed by India's Hindu extremists and the disgraced monarchical elements inside the country, accusing them of trying to thwart the constituent assembly elections as a way to perpetuate Hindu monarchical rule through protracted instability.

Lately, Maoists added the CIA as a suspect behind the violent events in Terai, comparing it with the CIA-backed Contra activities in Nicaragua in the early 1980s aimed at destroying the Sandinista revolution.

Observers say the Maoist party has sunk into a quagmire, with the party's rank and file unhappy over the outcome of its mainstream political participation and the leadership feeling cheated by other democratic parties, particularly the Nepali Congress. Matrika Yadav, one of the five Maoist ministers, submitted his resignation letter in early August, which was accepted Aug. 10, and complained that other parties in the coalition government were not cooperating and the demands of minority groups were going unheeded.

Analysts say Nepal is in limbo because the eight-party coalition government led by Mr. Koirala is a prisoner of indecision. Coalition partners grumble over their share of political appointments and as a result, Nepal has lacked ambassadors in 18 countries for the last 16 months.

A Maoist report submitted to the meeting of the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organizations of South Asia (CCOMPOSA), held in India toward the end June, clearly indicates a Maoist intention to start insurrection. The report says, "Our mass line, discipline of our PLA (People's Liberation Army) and political line has gathered momentum to prepare the ground for the final insurrection. We are utilizing this transitional phase to spread our mass base and consolidate it, to get rid of our own shortcomings and bring disintegration in the enemy's camp so that we can give final blow and usher into the country a new democracy."

The international community, particularly India, China, the United States, Britain, the European Union and the United Nations, all backed the Nepalese government with different kinds of support so it could conduct the scheduled elections. U.S. Ambassador Nancy J. Powell committed $3 million for printing ballot papers.

Diplomats stationed in Katmandu expressed concern about future events if elections are not conducted in time.

Despite support coming from international friends, analysts say none of the political parties inside the country is enthusiastic about the elections. With just over 90 days until election day, the country has not seen any pre-electoral activities, such as declarations of manifestoes, candidate selection or general campaigning.

Analysts say adding to the uncertainty of the security situation is the major party leaders' lack of confidence in winning. Since they doubt their own electoral performance, advisers around Mr. Koirala reportedly floated the idea of enlarging the membership of the current parliament with members from the agitating groups, thus converting it into a constituent assembly. They argue this is the viable alternative to an uncertain election, referencing the recent developments in Burundi where the existing parliament was converted into a constituent assembly under U.N. auspices. India and the United Nations reportedly rejected such an idea, saying the government would lose legitimacy if proposed elections are not held in time, while civil-society leaders denounced it as party leaders' self-serving opportunism.

Analysts predict that success of the Maoists' precondition to dethrone the monarchy before the constituent assembly elections is unlikely, as are the chances of pacifying the ethnic and regional disturbances. They argue that failure to conduct elections as scheduled could lead to several scenarios, including military activism, the Maoist-led "people's revolt" and its subsequent takeover or an all-out protracted civil war.

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