Nepal’s Political Tightrope

Nepal's experiment with full democracy after 240 years of monarchy is taking on ominous overtones, with the Communist Party-Maoist demanding that the three-party alliance that recently denied them the right to name the country's new president and vice president be disbanded.

Over the objections of the Maoists, Ram Baran Yadav, an ally of G P Karoila, the longtime leader of the Nepali Congress Party, was named president Wednesday, sidelining the Maoists and prompting them initially to say they would sit in the opposition despite the fact that they are the biggest party in the newly formed Constituent Assembly.

Nonetheless, Yadav said over the weekend that he would ask the leader of the Maoists, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who is better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, to head the government as prime minister. That still leaves Kathmandu reeling with political uncertainty, however, with the Maoists insisting that the parties commit to support a common minimum program and give a written commitment that they would not seek to topple the government for at least two years.

The opposition parties have called the conditions absurd and said their alliance would continue. The fundamental job of the political parties, government and the Constituent Assembly together is to write a new constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority of the assembly, which is not possible unless the three main political forces the Maoists, the Nepali Congress, and the smaller Communist Party of Nepal - Unified Marxist Leninist come together. It appears certain that a prolonged period of squabbling is likely to ensue.

A key to the uncertainty is the long standing rigid discrimination against Nepalese Dalits, or so-called untouchables, and against women and other ethnic groups. As a mark of the landlocked country's distress, it is one of the few in the world to embrace Maoism after even the Chinese abandoned it. Ethnicity, caste and gender inequalities, particularly in the western part of the country, led to large numbers of those left out of the economic mainstream to join the Maoist People's Army.

The Maoists swept to power in April at the ballot box after a bloody, decade-long campaign to dethrone the country's Hindu monarchy and bring about social change that ultimately cost an estimated 13,000 lives on all sides.

The previous parliament under the king was regarded as irretrievably corrupt and contentious, with at least 10 different governments ruling between 1991 and 2002 before a new constitution, drafted by the old elites, was put in place. Nor did the situation improve much after that. Government in general has been regarded as largely impotent.

There are questions whether the Maoists can do any better. Isolated in their armed struggle at the western edge of the country, they have had little practice at democratic governance, and there is an increasing danger that despite their numbers 201 seats in the 601-member assembly they will merely add to the continual squabbling.

Despite its soaring mountains, ancient culture and popularity with the world's backpackers and seekers of enlightenment, Nepal remains one of the poorest countries on earth. Per-capita gross domestic product in 2007 for the population of 29.5 million was only US$1,200. Some 42 percent of the population is out of work and nearly a third exists under the official poverty level. Tourism, the mainstay of the economy, nearly collapsed under the weight of the 10-year rebellion.

The newly emerging opposition alliance which sank Prachanda's candidates for president and vice president, shows little willingness to let the Maoist leader off the hook. Although he has vowed to become an executive prime minister, Prachanda faces continuing opposition in policymaking and implementation.

The Maoists' first test was July 19 when the Maoist candidate for vice president, Shanta Shrestha, lost to Paramananda Jha of the Madhesi People's Rights Forum by 305 votes in the 601-member assembly. Despite the fact that Prachanda himself is a Madhesi, he gets little sympathy from the ethnic Madhesi community, which dominates the southern Nepal area that borders India. The Madhesis have emerged as a potent political power since the April election. With nearly 40 percent of Nepal's population, they are demanding autonomous status.

This leaves Koirala an unlikely kingmaker. In addition to getting Yadav elected, he has thwarted Prachanda's plans for overall control of the country. As long as he holds on, the octogenarian Koirala, a chain-smoker who suffers from respiratory illness, looks likely to keep the constituent assembly in turmoil.