Nepal, erstwhile Monarchy and once the only ‘officially Hindu nation’ of the world, may have seen much greater challenges in its journey, but May 28, 2011 would still go down as an important date in the fledgling democracy’s patchy calendar. Forestalling a major Constitutional crisis, Nepal’s key parties recently struck a last-minute deal to extend the term of the Constituent Assembly (CA) by three months, under which Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal will step down for the formation of a national unity govt.
The breakthrough came after almost 15-hour long emergency consultations between the Nepal Congress (NC), the Maoists, Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxists Leninists (CPN-UML) and United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) towards arriving at a five-point agreement on the peace process and, more urgently, extending the term of CA which expired last night.
Amongst other things, the deal includes a commitment to finalize the peace process, and prepare a first draft of the new Constitution within three months. It also carries the stipulation of Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal resigning in three months, to make way for a National Unity Government.
The extension of the CA term means that there is now lesser chances of the Himalayan nation slipping multiple governance graveyards simultaneously viz., tug-of-war between the Prime Minister’s Office and the President’s Office on the subject of primacy in the event of dissolution of the CA; and between the ruling coalition and the opposition parties about the legitimacy of the government elected by the defunct CA.
‘Lesser chances’ because it is Nepalese politics and only the foolish would hazard a guess on tomorrow’s turn of events. To illustrate the fluid nature of Nepal’s democracy: This is the 9th amendment of the Interim Constitution of Nepal 2007. The process of drafting the new constitution is now in its fourth year. The first meeting on the constitution drafting was held on May 8, 2008, following a slew of cinema-inspiring events that brought down the 240-year-old Monarchy.
For the moment though, out of 508 parliament members, 504 lawmakers voted in the favour of the bill for 9th amendment of the Constitution. Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal, who assumed the office about four months ago, offered to resign to pave way for formation of a national unity government and to start regrouping the Maoist combatants for the purpose of integration under the deal.
The following is the full text of the five-point deal that was released by the government early on the morning of May 29, 2011:
“We the political parties have reached the following agreement today, May 28:
(1) To complete the basic tasks of the peace process within three months;
(2) To prepare the first draft of the constitution from the Constituent Assembly (CA) within three months;
(3) To implement effectively the various past agreements reached with the Madhesi Front, including the one to make the Nepal Army (NA) an inclusive institution;
(4) To extend the CA term by three months;
(5) The prime minister to resign and pave the way for the formation of a consensus national unity government.”
Chairman of UCPN-Maoist Prachanda, President of NC Sushil Koirala and Chairman of CPN-UML Jhalanath Khanal signed off the document at the last moment to avert the expiry of the session.
While the nation might have heaved a sigh of relief, the Supreme Court (SC) of Nepal has wasted no time in reminding people of a rider:
“The Interim Constitution Article 64 specifies that the Constitution Assembly’s (CA’s) term is for two years. It can be extended for a period of six months only, should there be an emergency situation in the country. It cannot be extended indefinitely.”
All the same, owing to the key geographical identity Nepal, most nations were happy to sense a promise of stability through the deal. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was one of the first global office holders to react on the deal. Martin Nesirky, the UN spokesman said:
“He (the UN SG) welcomes the parties’ reaffirmation of their commitment to complete the basic tasks of the peace process, particularly the integration and rehabilitation of the Maoist army personnel.”
But closer home, after long periods of political instability, there is widespread skepticism in Nepal about the deal. Some experts have called the deal a ‘hoax perpetrated on the Nepalese people’. The moot point of the critics is that the deal neither mentions any technical details or precise commitments by the involved parties, nor throws any light on the mechanism / rules regarding non-compliance or non-performance by any of the parties. It is a complaint that was also made against the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) signed between the Government of Nepal and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) on November 21, 2006, which formally ended the decade-long Nepalese People’s War. But more than anything, the general feeling in Nepal intelligentsia is that it is simply unrealistic to expect the warring factions to arrive at something that they couldn’t achieve in the past three years.
Unfortunately, the parties involved too are doing precious little to dispel those doubts.
Majority of the 21 Nepali Congress Central Working Committee (CWC) members are said to have criticized their own leadership for ignoring the party’s 10-point condition paper for extending the Constituent Assembly’s tenure. They were also enraged by the fact that the deal overlooked the important demand of immediate handover of the Maoist weapons to the government.
Whereas, Dinanath Sharma, Spokesperson of UCPN-M stressed that all the agreements made in the five-point deal should be implemented at once; and United Democratic Madhesi Front has threatened to begin a revolt if their demands of immediate resignation of PM Khanal, recruitment of 10,000 Terai people in Nepal Army in bulk and recognition of one- Madhes-one province are not met.
Most worryingly though, the Maoists are on the verge of a split today, with an ugly and almost open infighting between the hardliners, led by Mohan Baidya Kiran, and moderates, led by Prachand and Babu Ram Bhattarai. Chairman Prachanda is finding it difficult to deal with the hardliners, who may walk out of the party in case of any humiliating compromise in a bid to honour the 5-point deal. Many of Kiran’s supporters have accused their party chief of a sellout on peace and constitution.
Actually, even at the most peaceful hour, it would be quite a massive concession for the Maoist leaders to agree to police personnel replacing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) men. It would be quite a symbolic turnaround of policy on their part. With reportedly 19,000 PLA cadres manning various camps, the issue becomes of monumental proportions too.
And yet, while the issue of the Madhesis being seen as ‘gate-crashers’ by many and serious doubts persisting about successful induction of Maoist combatants into the mainstream, the issue that threatens to derail the deal almost immediately is Point 5 of the deal. While the NC general secretary Krishna Prasad Sitaula said his party’s understanding was that the Prime Minister would resign very soon, Prime Minister Khanal said that he would resign “only when there was an alternative national unity framework in place”. Now, as the deal merely asks the Prime Minister to ‘make way for a national consensus government’ – without specifying the time-frame and conditions for the transition, the issue of change of leadership could turn quite messy. If Nepal’s political track record is anything to go by, the opposition will surely spend a lot of political energy on removing the Prime Minister – who has made many enemies, both within and outside his party – from office, and the Prime Minister would give back in kind to stay in office. In the slug fest, most of the three months’ time might be consume away from the peace process.
Why the issue of Prime Minister’s resignation is important is because the present impasse is similar to the one last year last year, when the term of the CA was set to expire at the midnight of May 28, 2010. The political parties had then agreed to extend the term by one year as part of a crucial deal under which the then Prime Minister Madhav Nepal had agreed to tender his resignation at an appropriate time to pave the way for formation of a government on the basis of consensus among the political parties. Alas, while Madhav Nepal’s ‘appropriate time’ stretched up to seven months, the so-called government of national consensus could not be formed.
In view of all of the aforementioned, perhaps, the Nepalese Parliament has initiated the process of constituting a panel to monitor the implementation of the five-point agreement. To be formed reportedly under the chairmanship of Speaker Subas Nemwang, the monitoring panel would have the representation of all political parties and would demand the working plan and road map of peace process and constitution writing with signatories of the five-point deal.
Neither the five-point deal, nor the monitoring panel may be able to dispel all doubts in the Nepalese civil society – far from it; but the fact that the 28-May deal has helped avert a grave constitutional crisis and, perhaps, stopped the nation from going into a free-fall of yesteryears is still quite an achievement for this fledgling democracy of South Asia. Let’s hope it now builds upon it. Soon.