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Political Crisis in Nepal Could Jeopardize Peace Process

By Anjana Pasricha
New Delhi
06 May 2009

In Nepal, political parties are holding talks to form a national government after Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known as Prachanda, quit following differences with the President over his sacking of the army chief. Concerns are running high that the political crisis could jeopardize a peace deal which ended a decade-long civil war, and brought the Maoists into the political mainstream.

When Maoist leader Prachanda stepped down as Prime Minister, he promised in an address to the nation that he remains committed to democracy and peace.

But in Nepal, there is deep uncertainty over what the future holds.

Prachanda, a former guerrilla, quit this week after President Ram Baran Yadav overturned an order by Prachanda to sack the army chief. The Maoists accused the head of the army of disobeying the government's orders, and fired him despite strong objections by other parties in the Maoist-led coalition.

The Maoists have been at loggerheads with the army chief because he has refused to integrate 19,000 former guerrillas, who are currently living in United Nations-supervised camps, into the army as stipulated under a 2006 peace deal. Army chief Rookmangud Katawal says he cannot hire "politically indoctrinated" cadres.

A Political analyst in Kathmandu, Yubaraj Ghimire, says the Maoists want to promote their former fighters, and get a grip on the army.

"Sacking army chief Katawal was just not a question of civilian supremacy as the Maoists are saying," said Ghimire. "It was a very political move to demoralize the Nepal army, and to boost the image of the private army, which is a Maoist affiliated outfit".

The Maoists have refused to back down, and have vowed a campaign of civil disobedience to press for the army chief's removal. Hundreds of Maoist supporters are holding daily street protests in the capital Kathmandu since the crisis erupted. Stone-throwing protesters have clashed with police.

Slogan-chanting Maoist lawmakers have shut down parliament and said they will disrupt proceedings making it impossible for a new prime minister to be voted in.

Editor of the Nepali Times, Kunda Dixit, says the strategy being adopted by the Maoists is not surprising for a party whose supporters have often used disruptive tactics to get their way.

"They are isolated, but the thing is they have not yet given up the politics of threats and intimidation, and they do this by saying if you don't agree with us, we will bring out 5,000 people on the streets and then we will get what we want," said Dixit. "It is an extra constitutional process they are using."

All eyes are now on major political parties, who have been in talks to form a new government. With parliament highly fractured, these parties are trying to woo the former rebels, and say the best course would be to form a national consensus government. The Maoists, who are the largest party, have not committed as to whether they will return to the government, or prefer to sit in the opposition.

Political analyst Yubaraj Ghimire, says any new government formed without the backing of the Maoists is unlikely to survive for long.

"Maoist strategy would be to rule if they can, and not let anyone rule if they can't form the government. As simple as that," said Ghimire. "This will make the peace process and the move to institutionalize democracy a casualty."

The Maoists joined the political mainstream after laying down arms under the 2006 peace deal which led to the end of the monarchy. The Maoists went on to win 40 per cent of the seats in elections last year for a constituent assembly. The constituent assembly, which also functions as an interim parliament, is drafting a new constitution for the country.

But with the country staring at political instability, the task of drawing up a new constitution is likely to take a back seat, and the future of the peace agreement which ended the country's civil war is under a cloud.

However optimists are hoping that the Maoists, who have much at stake to prove their democratic credentials, will not push matters to the brink, and former Prime Minister Prachanda will live up to his word of abiding by the rules of multi-party democracy.

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