Nepal’s Revolutionary Pratfall

Nepal’s communists, who swept to power in April at the ballot box after a bloody, decade-long campaign to dethrone the country’s Hindu monarchy, are learning that governing isn’t as easy as revolution.

On Tuesday, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, the head of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, announced that his party did not have the muscle to form a government despite the fact that it won 220 seats and became the leading party in the 601-seat Constituent Assembly. That leaves the assembly flailing. Although the Maoists said they had lost the moral ground to form the leadership, Prachanda said they would not allow other political parties to form a government either.

The decision follows a vain attempt earlier this week to force through Prachanda’s candidates for president and vice president. So far, he has been thwarted by the emergence of a three-party alliance of the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal - Unified Marxist Leninist and the ethnic Madhesi People's Rights Forum.

The Maoists have had little practice at democracy. They came in from the cold officially in 2006 to a government rife with corruption and an economy that is one of the world’s poorest. Per-capita gross domestic product in 2007 for Nepal’s 29.5 million people 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 long rebellion, in which more than 13,000 people died.

"The Maoists now can understand what democracy is,” a Kathmandu-based political analyst said. “It is not the time of their bloody revolution, where they could put pressure on someone to make things favorable for them. They have to follow the norms of democracy, where the people's mandate is vital and certainly not the other form or power.”

The newly emerging alliance that sank Prachanda’s presidential and vice presidential candidates shows little willingness to let the Maoist leader off the hook. Although he has vowed to become an executive prime minister, the Kathmandu-based analyst said the former rebel faces continuing opposition in policymaking and implementation.

It should have been easier than this. Indeed, for weeks after the election things went smoothly. The Maoist party was exactly twice as big as the next biggest, the Nepali Congress Party, with 110 seats. The third biggest, the Communist Party of Nepal, has 103 elected members. But Prachanda obviously hadn’t learned the art of horse-trading.

At its first sitting in May, the Constituent Assembly declared the country a democratic republic and drove King Gyanendra from the Narayanhiti palace. The palace was later converted into a museum. Flushed with electoral victory, the Maoists demanded that both the posts of president and prime minister be reserved for them as well, which stirred alarm and alienated the lawmakers not aligned with his party.

The 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 assembly. Last Monday, in the final round of polls, Ram Baran Yadav, also a Madhesi candidate, was elected Nepal’s first president. The ethnic Madhesi community, from southern Nepal, has emerged as a political power since the April election. With nearly 40 percent of Nepal’s population, the Madhesis are also demanding autonomous status.

The new coalition leaders say they plan to continue their alliance, fighting for the post of Chairman of the Constituent Assembly. A visibly irritated Prachanda has called the alliance “unholy.” Where the government goes from here is anybody’s guess. Political uncertainty is the only thing that remains certain in Kathmandu.