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Nepali Politics: Then & Now

By Saurav Rajbhandari

The Maoist party of Nepal launched the decade-long civil war in 1996 which took the lives of almost 17,000 people and displaced 100,000 people from their homes. It ultimately abolished the 240-years-long monarchy in 2006 after a peace agreement was struck between the government and the CPN (Communist Party of Nepal) Maoists.

The origin of the conflict takes us back fifty, or even a hundred, years into past as the general population had become dissatisfied with the autocratic system of government. The desire for democratic reform was a feature of Nepalese society from the 1950s onwards, but efforts to establish a representative form of government were either unsuccessful or repeatedly thwarted by the ruling Shah dynasty. The 1979 Nepalese student protests marked a significant turning point; a series of violent protests during the months of April and May forced the monarchy to agree to a constitutional referendum. Although small, the democratic reforms that followed laid the foundations for further campaigns of civil disobedience throughout the 1980s. In 1990, Nepal’s main leftist parties united within a ‘People’s Movement,’ and combined with weeks of protests this quickly pressured King Birendra into establishing a multi-party political system and a constitutional monarchy later that year.

Nepali Congress won the subsequent elections in 1991 and formed the country’s first elected government in 32 years. However, a period of political instability amidst a climate of economic chaos followed, and the newly formed parties on the radical left began a program of political agitation through industrial and violent action. The government’s forceful repression of these protests and other similar movements only served to further radicalize many activists and further increase tensions.

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda), started a ‘People’s War’ on February 13, 1994 with the intention of deposing the existing government and replacing the royal parliamentary system with a ‘People’s Republic.’ The conflict that followed was characterized by the Maoist rebels gaining significant control over Nepal’s rural areas, whilst the government remained in control of the main cities and towns. This status quo existed for many years, partly due to the fact that only the Nepali Police were mobilized to combat the insurgency.
However, the situation changed dramatically in 2001 after the Maoist rebels withdrew from peace talks and launched a series of attacks against police and army posts in 42 of Nepal’s 75 districts. A National State of Emergency was subsequently declared by the government three days later and the Royal Nepalese Army was finally engaged in the conflict. Shortly after, the U.S. State Department declared the Maoist political party to be a terrorist organization, and the U.S. Congress approved $12 million to train Royal Nepalese Army officers and send shipments of weapons.

The renewal of the State of Emergency caused significant political instability over the following year, and support for the monarchy began to wane as the conflict neared the Kathmandu Valley in 2004. This sentiment was only exacerbated by King Gyanendra when he performed a Royal Coup. In 2005, he dismissed the entire government, assumed full executive powers, and declared a second State of Emergency which restricted a wide range of civil liberties; a move that was met with widespread criticism abroad.

The Comprehensive Peace Accord brought a formal end to the civil war and provided the framework for a sustainable peace. Under the pact, the Maoists were allowed to take part in government in exchange for agreeing to lock up their weapons and confine fighters to UN-monitored camps. The King was also stripped of his political powers.

In the period immediately following the conflict, there were some promising steps: The Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction proposed legislation to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission; an interim constitution was adopted in 2007 with the intent of forming a Constituent Assembly; and Nepal became a democratic republic with the abolition of the monarchy in 2008.
A substantial step was also taken in November 2011 when the main political parties agreed on a deal to reintegrate 7,000 former Maoist rebels back into society, having remained in camps since the end of the conflict, with the support of the UN Interagency Rehabilitation Program.

However, such successes have been few and far between, and the peace process has become extremely protracted due to a climate of continual political instability. Indeed, the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal has had six prime ministers in the last five years. Tensions between the Maoists and other political groups were particularly strained in 2010, sparking widespread protests, strikes and violent clashes. Prime Minister Nepal subsequently resigned his position in an attempt to pave the way for a national consensus government, but this only succeeded in giving rise to a seven-month political stalemate during which Nepal had no effective government.

Such turmoil has severely limited the country’s recovery, with the most obvious and fundamental example being Nepal’s failure to draft a new constitution. The Constituent Assembly was elected in 2008 with a two-year mandate, but this was extended four times as the major parties were unable to agree on the country’s future federal structure. Each of these extensions was met with increasing popular unrest, and the Assembly was finally dissolved by Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai in 2013 with a view to holding new elections.

Elections have taken place in 2017. The first phase has been completed and the second phase is happening in different parts of the country. The future depends on how the elected leaders handle things. Let’s hope the next level of elections will bring good leaders, leaders that have a proper agenda to do well for the entire country.

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