Political Vacuum

Maoist insurgency Nepal, victims
Nepalese men forced to flee fighting in their village take refuge south of Kathmandu, May 28, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

In mid-2001, Nepal’s struggle against a six-year-old “People’s War” waged by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) seemed to have taken a turn for the better. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s ruling Nepali Congress government had negotiated a cease-fire and was engaged in peace talks. On Nov. 23, 2001, however, the Maoist forces broke the cease-fire with a surprise attack on an army barracks. Three days later, Deuba, with parliamentary support, imposed a state of emergency. The army was pulled into the conflict and Nepal entered a virtual civil war.

The state of emergency was renewed for a second three-month period in February. But in late May, Deuba’s rival party faction, led by Girija Prasad Koirala, became restless to usurp Deuba’s power—Deuba was intent on continuing the emergency, while Koirala supporters were against it. Without parliamentary approval, Deuba recommended that King Gyanendra dissolve Parliament. The king acted on Deuba’s advice, then appointed Deuba as the leader of the interim government, allowing him to extend the state of emergency.

The Koirala faction of the Nepali Congress Party promptly filed to declare the prime minister’s actions unconstitutional. On Aug. 6, the Supreme Court upheld Parliament’s dissolution. The terms of locally elected bodies had expired on July 16, leaving all localities without elected leaders. This left Nepal in a complete political vacuum.

Although general parliamentary elections are slated for November, local elections are not scheduled until April 2003. This makes for a “high-risk election scenario,” according to the Nepali Times (independent, Aug. 2-8): “The government’s conviction that it can hold parliamentary elections but that it is too dangerous to conduct local polls is...hypocritical and disingenuous...Every eyewitness report...points to the perils of holding general elections in the present political limbo.”

The Kathmandu Post (independent, Aug. 8) blamed political leaders for having lost sight of organizing people at the grass-roots level as the best way to combat terrorism. “If the government and political parties want to mobilize people...the best by advancing the local bodies’ polls.” Opposition parties are calling for an all-party government to ensure fair elections on Nov. 13. “This could be an option the country should ser-iously take into account,” The Himalayan Times said (independent, July 22).

It also seems that the Maoists, on the defensive, are ready to negotiate again. On Aug. 11, their leader Prachanda called for  peace talks. But the next day, violence resumed as security forces raided a Maoist hideout, killing 10 rebels, and the Maoists assassinated a local Nepali Congress leader. The rebels will be testing their power with a bandh (strike) called for Sept. 16. Without local governance and with a lack of confidence in the interim government’s ability to protect citizens, the upcoming bandh will probably keep most Nepalis inside their homes.